Monday, December 30, 2013

The Future of BPS and the Search for a New Superintendent


The Boston Public Schools is in the midst of many changes. In the next couple years, the ELA and math MCAS exam will be replaced with the PARCC test based on the new Common Core standards. A new teacher evaluation system has gone into effect that gives principals more discretion in dismissing teachers that they rate unsatisfactory, however, concerns have also been raised about its race and age bias. BPS has instituted new policies that give principals more flexibility in hiring teachers. A new school assignment system will go into effect that will modify school choice using a home-based model, but will ultimately limit school choice for most parents and could result in more race and class segregation. The Boston School Department will physically move from Court Street downtown to the renovated Ferdinand Building in Dudley Square (see images below). With Marty Walsh taking office as the first new mayor in 20 years, there will also be major changes in the leadership of the Boston Public Schools, including a new Boston school superintendent.

During this time of change, the choice of the next school superintendent is crucial. On the one hand, Marty Walsh could choose a market-based education reformer; someone who would expand the number of charter schools, push for merit pay, develop a contentious relationship with the teachers union, and expand programs like Teach for America in BPS. In fact, in an interview about a month ago, he said he would "absolutely consider" his former mayoral opponent John Connolly for superintendent (a candidate who generally supported these education positions). Although this appeared to be merely a verbal consolation for his former rival, it resulted in media buzz, as well as push back from some Walsh voters, who found John Connolly's market-based education reform vision and donors troubling.

On the other hand, Marty Walsh could choose a proven leader with experience as an educator to improve, rather than simply reform, the Boston Public Schools. He could follow the lead of progressive New York City mayor-elect (and Massachusetts native) Bill de Blasio, who will appoint on Monday Carmen Fariña as the next NYC superintendent. Fariña is a former Brooklyn teacher and district leader who agrees with de Blasio's stance that there is an excessive emphasis on standardized testing and that market-based education ideas, including the expansion of charter schools, have not improved the New York City public schools. Although I do not have a specific list of superintendent candidates, I do offer the following three suggestions for Marty Walsh's selection of the next superintendent. 

Avoid Educational Charlatans
First, do not choose a self-proclaimed education reformer or someone who professes to "turnaround" urban districts. An educational charlatan is someone who falsely claims to have a special knowledge about education, when they do not. Marty Walsh should avoid any superintendent candidates that promise radical change or rapid results. This is usually a sign that the prospective superintendent is overly ideological and usually ill-informed on school improvement (which research shows that meaningful school change almost always takes significant time). These candidates will make lofty promises that they cannot keep, and worse, their promises will often result in greater school inequity and corporate profiteering. John Connolly ran almost exclusively on his education platform, which included decentralizing the school system and increasing charter schools. He highlighted his contentious relationship with the Boston Teachers Union. These reforms would be major set backs for, despite its high rate of poverty, one of the best urban school systems in the country. The Boston Public Schools need a superintendent committed to sustaining the the progress the system has made over the past two decades and someone who will intentionally focus support and resources on the schools that are struggling the most. This strategy has had relative success at the William Monroe Trotter (where I have done work as a professor at Boston University) and Orchard Gardens. The voters of Boston chose Marty Walsh, which was a clear rejection of John Connolly's market-based education reform plan.

Experience and Qualification Matter
Second, choose someone who is experienced and qualified to be superintendent of the Boston Public Schools. A qualified superintendent would be someone who has led a large urban district similar to Boston with an educational background in school leadership and a track record of improving schools. Over the last decade, many large cities chose superintendents from the business or non-profit sectors who never led a school district (i.e. Paul Vallas in Chicago, and later Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Bridgeport, Arne Duncan in Chicago, Joel Klein in New York City, Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson in D.C.). They chose superintendents that did not have doctorates in educational leadership and were not certified to be superintendents. They had little to no background in managing a school budget, negotiating contracts, and especially lacked experience in leading curriculum and instructional improvement. They had never been teachers or, in the case of Michelle Rhee or Kaya Henderson, were teachers for a short period of time through TFA (high-performing education systems like Singapore or Finland require educational leaders to have substantial experience as teachers and they do not have organizations like TFA). These superintendents generally received positive publicity in the media, but their actions had negative effects, including massive school closings and decreasing student populations, high teacher turnover, test cheating scandals, and relatively little improvement in test scores (which was usually their main promise).

Local Knowledge Can Make the Difference  
Third, there are many qualified candidates inside and outside the Boston Public Schools, with knowledge of Boston or similar districts, that would make excellent superintendents. Despite saying he will only look outside BPS during the campaign, Marty Walsh should not rule out some of the current BPS leadership. Educational leaders who have spent time in the district may have important insider knowledge that is necessary for meaningful improvement in the district. They will understand BPS's students and families well, and unlike outsiders, not be under the false impression that the Boston school system is failing. They will know when to give principal's more autonomy over their schools and when to require more involvement from the central office. When looking outside of the district, Marty Walsh should consider superintendents of other Massachusetts urban districts and successful school districts nationwide of comparable size and demographics (It is a better idea to look in San Diego or Austin, rather than New Orleans or Chicago). It would be smart to look at high-performing urban school districts that are often overlooked by the media, including Brockton (MA), Framingham (MA), Union City (NJ), Charlotte-Mecklenburg (NC), Montgomery County (MD), and Cincinnati (OH). Candidates who previously or presently lead these districts will have a strong understanding of sustainable educational change and be leery of rapid and dramatic system-wide reform, especially those that have become fashionable with the market-based reformers. As Boston College professors Dennis Shirley and Andy Hargreaves recently pointed out, the most successful school systems do not have "policies supporting fast-track teacher certification programs or salary bonuses for teachers who boost test scores. None have systems of sanctions for struggling schools with rotations of principals and staff in and out that erode trust and destroy community. None set up win-lose competitions among neighboring schools. Instead, teachers and schools in challenging circumstances receive additional supports, including from more successful schools, so that they can identify problems quickly and resolve them." 

For now, the waiting game continues to see who mayor-elect Marty Walsh will appoint and what he envisions for the future of the Boston Public Schools...



(Top: Court Street, which is the current headquarters of the Boston Public Schools. Bottom: The Ferdinand Building, a former department store that is being renovated and will soon be the new headquarters for the Boston Public Schools.)

Monday, December 16, 2013

Teaching the Boston Tea Party


Today marks the 240th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party. This historical event is often credited as being the spark that set off the American Revolution. This evening many Bostonians will participate in the annual re-enactment of the Tea Party starting at the Old South Meeting House and ending up at Griffin's Wharf (we can talk about historical accuracies of the new Boston Tea Party Museum some other time).

Due to its connection to the principles of freedom and liberty, the Boston Tea Party has often been co-opted by social movements that believe they have a philosophical connection. This has included abolitionism, women's rights movements, civil rights movements, pro-war movements (especially during World War I and II), anti-war movements (especially during the Vietnam War), anti-abortion movements, immigration reform movements, anti-immigration movements (such as the Minutemen Project), anti-corporate movements (such as Occupy Wall Street), and, of course, the recent conservative Tea Party movement. Sometimes these movements are rightful heirs and sometimes they are not. For example, the naming of the conservative Tea Party movement, a modern-day libertarian movement for small government, is built on a false premise that the Boston colonists were protesting against higher taxes. In fact, the colonists were protesting against Britain's financial support for the East India Tea Company that affected their local trade and the lack of colonial representation in Parliament (remember "no taxation without representation" from your history textbooks?).

When creating social studies lesson plans around the Boston Tea Party, it is important to teach not only the event in historical context, but also about current movements that claim to be descendents of the original movement. It would be helpful to spend a couple class periods using primary sources to answer the inquiry question, "Were the Boston colonists justified in their acts during the Boston Tea Party?" This could be followed with a debate or a mock trial. Afterward, the students should learn about the Parliament's reaction to the Tea Party and the ensuing Coercive Acts or Intolerable Acts (as some of the people in the colonies called them). Finally, students can be asked to examine modern movements claiming to be rooted in the Boston Tea Party and assess if those groups live up to the spirit and the philosophies of the Boston Tea Party of 1773. For some excellent resources in teaching the Tea Party, see the links below:

Resources for teaching the original Boston Tea Party (and the woman-led Edenton Tea Party that followed):

Boston Tea Party: Lesson Plan (Secondary)

Boston Tea Party: Lesson Plan (Elementary)

Boston Tea Party: Video Game: From Crown or Colony?

Boston Tea Party: National History Education Clearinghouse

Boston Tea Party: Massachusetts Historical Society [Set 1]

Boston Tea Party: Massachusetts Historical Society [Set 2]

Boston Tea Party: National Archives

Boston Tea Party: The Smithsonian

Boston Tea Party: Public Broadcasting Service (PBS)

Boston Tea Party: The History Channel

Boston Tea Party: University of Houston's Digital History (Account of George Robert Twelve Hewes)

The Shoemaker and the Tea Party by: Memory and the American Revolution by Alfred Young

Edenton Tea Party: North Carolina History Project

Edenton Tea Party: Learn NC

Boston and Edenton Tea Parties: University of North Carolina

Resources for teaching about modern day movements linked to the Boston Tea Party:

Lesson Plan: The Tea Party

Lesson Plan: Occupy Wall Street

Lesson Plan: Immigration Reform

Lesson Plan: Gay Marriage




Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Black Friday: Teaching About Consumerism



Consumerism: n. the belief that it is good for people to spend money on goods and services; a preoccupation of society with the acquisition of consumer goods.

In the United States, the day after Thanksgiving has been dubbed by the media as "Black Friday." It is a time when stores (usually large chain and "big box" stores) run sales to attract people to begin Christmas shopping. This results in crowded shopping malls across the country (see the above picture). It has even become a consumer tradition to wait out of stores the night before in hopes of getting that "hot-ticket" item. In the recent decades, "Black Friday" has also been marked by stampeding herds of people running into stores after opening. Often the ensuing fights and injuries among shoppers are then covered by the same media sources that promoted Black Friday.

Consumerism developed in the United States in the late 19th century and has increasingly become a component of modern American life. The first major boom in consumerism occurred during the 1920s (see the below picture of billboards outside New York City during this time) and a second major boom after World War II (see the below picture of a California shopping mall in the 1950s). The cost of this consumerism has been a dramatically inequitable allocation of wealth, increased global pollution, and negative psychological effects on individuals. Moreover, almost everything in western society is being commoditized. Services that were once for the public good are becoming privatized (an idea rooted in Milton Friedman's work on privatizing education and supported by current day wealthy philanthropists). The term "consumer" is problematically used to describe people who seek education, housing, or health care. There are underlying assumptions that consumers can make the best choices in the market place and capitalism creates fair and equalizing conditions.

Yet, students are rarely taught in their social studies classrooms to be critical of consumerism and capitalism. While there are many economics curricula and lesson plans that promote an uncritical view of capitalism, there are also numerous resources that highlight the problems caused by it. By challenging students to think about consumerism, they learn to question a system that has potentially negative effects on communities and nations. If students gain a better understanding of the economic system and the problems that arise from it, they develop important critical thinking skills necessary to be democratic citizens.



Here are some websites for helping students better understand consumerism:

Ad Busters: Buy Nothing Day Campaign
A grassroots movement to create an international day of protest against consumerism celebrated annually just after Thanksgiving. Appropriate for elementary and secondary students.

Social Justice Economics Lesson
A lesson plan that I created for teaching key economic concepts through a social justice lens. Highlights that not everyone starts with the same resources and that the system has certain advantages and disadvantages. More appropriate for elementary students.

Media Smarts
A Canadian Center for digital and media literacy. Has many lesson plans related to consumerism. Appropriate for elementary and secondary students.

Oakland Unified School District: Critical Consumerism Unit
A unit plan developed by J. Flaningam of the Oakland Unified School District to teach his students to critically read the world of consumerism.

The Story of Stuff
A popular 20-minute, fast-paced, fact-filled look at the underside of our production. Appropriate for elementary and secondary students. 

TED Talks on Consumerism
Short talks on consumerism from the TED Conference. Some frame it in positive terms and others question it. More appropriate for secondary students. 

Film: PBS Frontline: The Persuaders
Examines the world of marketing, from products to politics and its impact on the American social structure.

Film: The Corporation
A 2003 Canadian documentary film that examined the modern-day corporation. More appropriate for secondary students.

Film: PBS American Experience: Tupperware
Looks at 1950s consumerism through the development of the Tupperware product line. More appropriate for secondary students.

Resources for the History of Thanksgiving


In the United States, it is a common fall tradition in elementary classrooms to teach about the "first" Thanksgiving. Recently, I was talking with a colleague at BU about her daughter's "Pilgrims and Indians" project. Troubled by the inaccurate portrayal of the Separatists (Pilgrims) and Wampanoag people, we worked together on helping her daughter get quality resources to build her historically accurate project. My colleagues' daughter now has a much more accurate understanding of the Wampanoag way of life and a healthy obsession with learning more about the Wampanoag people.

Elementary and secondary students should know the whole history of Thanksgiving, which extends beyond the 1620s. It is true that there was a harvest celebration at Plymouth in 1621. It is true that Squanto (who had been previously kidnapped by English fisherman) and Massasoit helped the Separatists survive their first winter. It is true that the two groups lived in relative peace for many years. It is true that eventually, conflicts grew between the two groups and the Whites demanded that the Wampanoag eventually give up their guns. It is true that the Whites did not respect the Indians' way of life and issues of the Whites' cattle rampaging Indian villages were common. It is true that the English attempted to Christianize the Indians and "praying towns" were formed for this purpose. It is true that war would break out and Metacom/King Philip, the Wamponoag chief, would be killed. His head would later be placed on a pike at the entrance of Plymouth and remained for over two decades. It is true that in 1970, Wamsutta James was act to speak and then had his speech suppressed by the local officials holding the 350th anniversary celebration of Pilgrim's landing. This coincided with the first National Day of Mourning, where a group of American Indians protested their oppression by pouring red paint on Plymouth Rock and taking over the Mayflower II.


Below are a list of links that can help elementary and secondary teachers teach the whole story of Thanksgiving:

Adult Books

New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of America

The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of America



Children's Books

1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving (National Geographic)

Squanto's Journey: The Story of the First Thanksgiving


Web Resources: National Day of Mourning

First National Day of Mourning

The Suppressed Speech of Wamsutta (Frank B.) James, Wampanoag (1970)

2013 National Day of Mourning: United American Indians of New England

PBS American Experience: We Shall Remain: After the Mayflower


Web Resources: Thanksgiving

Top Ten Myths About Thanksgiving

National Archives: Thanksgiving as a National Holiday

Smithsonian: Thanksgiving

History Channel: Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving During World War II

Plimoth Plantation: Thanksgiving

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Teaching About Gay Marriage: 10 Years After Massachusetts

Today marks the 10th Anniversary of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's decision legalizing gay marriage and making it the first state in the U.S. to allow gay marriage. Since 2003, U.S. public opinion appears to be rapidly changing in favor of marriage equality and a recent Washington Post/ABC News polls shows 58% of Americans support the right for gay and lesbian couples to marry. Yet, gay marriage is viewed negatively in many religious and conservative communities and 29 states prohibit same-sex marriage in their constitutions. Like any social movement, students should grapple with the impact of change related to the civil definition of marriage. Here are some excellent resources to help social studies teach about the marriage equality movement:

The Massachusetts SJC Ruling and Related Law: http://www.lawlib.state.ma.us/subject/about/gaymarriage.html

The History of Gay Marriage (Boston Globe): http://www.boston.com/news/specials/gay_marriage/ and http://www.bostonglobe.com/2013/11/12/same-sex-marriage-over-time/mbVFMQPyxZCpM2eSQMUsZK/story.html

A Personal Retrospective of Gay Marriage in Massachusetts (TIME Magazine): http://ideas.time.com/2013/11/18/why-massachusetts-was-so-important-to-marriage-equality/

Different Stratgies to Marriage Equality (Teaching Tolerance): http://www.tolerance.org/lesson/marriage-equality-different-strategies-attaining-equal-right

A Contentious Debate: Same-Sex Marriage in the U.S. (Pew Religion and Public Life Project): http://www.pewforum.org/2009/07/09/a-contentious-debate-same-sex-marriage-in-the-us/

The Gay Marriage Debate (PBS NewsHour): http://www.pbs.org/newshour/extra/features/gaymarriage/


150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address


Today marks the 150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, given at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg. Former Senator Edward Everett of Massachusetts delivered a two-hour speech before Lincoln gave his approximately 2 minute address. Lincoln's words became one of the most widely-known speeches in U.S. history. Here is the full text:

"Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Teaching the JFK Assassination


This Friday will mark the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination. Although there is significant evidence to support the conclusion of the Warren Commission that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman, there is also a healthy amount of disconfirming evidence. This has led to doubt among the American public of the government's official findings. In a recent Gallup poll, 61% of Americans believed that Oswald did not act alone. When I was a classroom teacher, students would routinely ask me about the various conspiracy theories related to Kennedy's assassination. Social studies teachers should embrace American's skepticism and instead use the Kennedy assassination as an exercise in historical inquiry. It offers an excellent case study in historical thinking and can help students understanding the important role that science plays in understanding history.

I would suggest the following as the inquiry question for students to explore: Was Lee Harvey Oswald the sole person responsible for John F. Kennedy's assassination?

Teachers can start with an introduction of the incident. Most students have not had a chance to see the actual historical footage. There are some decent archives of the original CBS broadcast interruption and Walter Cronkite's report of Kennedy's death. Teachers may also consider using the Zapruder film, which is the only known film record of the assassination. This can be followed by one of the recent documentaries on the JFK presidency or assassination and an overview of conspiracy theories or NPR's recent story on why the conspiracy theories persist, as well as Oliver Stone's recent USA Today editorial that criticizes mainstream media coverage of the assassination.

Here is a list of websites where teachers can then seek primary sources to help students answer this inquiry question. I would recommend using shorter excerpts (300-400 words) for high schools students:

1. The National Archives website includes the full Warren Commission Report and images of evidence collected from the crime scenes.

2. The JFK Presidential Library has an in-depth discussion of the day's events, while PBS has the first speech Lyndon Baines Johnson gave after becoming president and the New York Times has the front page of their newspaper from the next day.

3. Digital History, Spartacus Educational, Mary Ferrell Foundation, the Assassination Archives and Research Center, and John McAdams at Marquette University all have extensive catalogues of primary source documents on the assassination.

4. There are several studies that support the "single-bullet theory," including Dale Myers (and a related ABC News Special), Michael and Luke Haag (and a Washington Post story summarizing their study), and Arlen Specter's work on the Warren Commission.

5. There are several studies that put into question the "single-bullet theory," including Cliff Spiegelman (and NBC News coverage of his study) and G. Paul Chamber, and the 1992 Congressional Kennedy Assassination Records Review Board.

By using the Kennedy assassination controversy, social studies teachers can engage students in a historical inquiry involving an incomplete record and no clear answer, which allows students created and recreated history themselves.



Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Boston's Education Mayor: None of the Above


Recently, one of my students asked me who I thought was the best mayoral candidate on the issue of education. Was it John Connolly, the candidate who proclaims himself the next "education mayor" with a desire to decentralize the school district and increase charter schools. Was it Marty Walsh, who is focusing his education policy on increasing job-training and has proposed creating vocational programs in every high school? After some thought, I answered "none of the above." It appears that neither candidate will be the "education mayor." The problem I said was that both candidates are advocating large-scale reform in the Boston Public Schools. As the Boston Globe stated today, both candidates for mayor offer plans to "overhaul" the schools. Yet, the Boston Public Schools is one of the top urban districts in the country. Its students have some of the highest scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The district received the coveted Broad Prize for Urban Education. It has experienced substantial progress in lowering drop out rates. The Boston Public Schools need a mayor committed to sustaining the the progress the system has made and will intentionally focus support and resources on the schools that are struggling the most.

In reality, the mayoral candidates are mimicking a larger national narrative on education, which I have previously argued reflects a common misconception that education reform and education improvement are one in the same. Despite evidence to the contrary, the media and politicians continue to perpetrate a myth that the U.S. education system is in peril and that market-based reforms and privatization are the only answer. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, students have shown substantial gains over the past 40 years and, albeit slowly, the achievement gap is closing. The research shows that the sources of America’s educational problems are primarily outside the school and rooted in income inequality and poverty. My BU colleague, Don Gillis recently highlighted the need for the next mayor to focus on poverty. Educational research supports this idea. One of the candidates, John Connolly recently claimed that improving the education system will increase jobs and reduce crime. However, his logic is backward. Increasing jobs (and reducing crime) will ultimately help improve the schools.

Although poverty and inequality are the main sources of the educational problems, there are measures that the next mayor of Boston should take to continue the improvement already made in the Boston Public Schools. The goal of the next mayor should be to focus on what Michael Fullan calls "continual improvement." The future superintendent should guide Boston in learning from (and sharing with) other high-performing urban school districts, including Brockton (MA), Framingham (MA), Union City (NJ), Charlotte-Mecklenburg (NC), Montgomery County (MD), and Cincinnati (OH). These districts did not enact a laundry list of market-based reforms. They did not increase the number of charter schools, hire private firms to manage under-performing schools, or bring in Teacher for America teachers, and in many cases the teachers unions were partners in implementing change. Based on what these districts have done and what the research literature tells us, I suggest five areas for the next mayor to focus on (which have not been widely discussed in this mayoral race).

1. Improve instruction by providing more time for professional development and collaboration

The next mayor should support the idea of embedding regular professional development time in the school day. Collaboration is at the heart of sustaining education improvement. It has been well documented that one of the major barriers to school improvements is a lack of time for teachers to work together on improving their instruction. This would include opportunities for teachers to observe each other and work in small groups to problem solve curriculum and instructional problems.

2. Leadership that focuses on team approaches to problem solving

The next mayor should choose a superintendent who will listen to the building principals, while being a leader in problem solving. They should be guided by the work of Andy Hargreaves and Alma Harris' on performance beyond expectations, which looks at highly success leadership across fields and use it as a model of leadership. Principals should be encouraged to embed teacher problem solving in their schools. Their goal should be to unite the faculty and foster a collective culture.

3. Decrease class size

Reducing class size improves student performance. You can see my presentation last year to the Framingham Teachers Association that summarizes the major research studies. Urban districts (including Boston) often have larger classes sizes compared to their more affluent suburban peers. This has had almost no mentioned in the mayor's race, yet should be one of the main issues discussed for improving the Boston Public Schools.

4. Enrich the curriculum; Include a focus on multicultural curriculum and culturally relevant teaching

Although literacy, math, and science are important, Boston lacks the diverse curriculum of the suburbs. The narrowing of the curriculum has had negative consequences in many urban districts. In many elementary schools in BPS, students are not being taught history or social studies. Art, music, and physical education should not be reserved for after school programs. The city should create more music- and art-themed schools, two-way bilingual schools and programs, and strengthen the high school athletics programs. The city should invest in Madison Park Vocational High School, making it a state-of-the-art technical facility. Finally, the curriculum should reflect the culture of BPS's students. Students of color should be learning about their histories and cultures and it should be embedded at every level of the system's curriculum. There are strong linkages between culturally relevant teaching and student success. Although many teachers in Boston are culturally relevant teachers, the district should offer more professional development around teaching in multicultural contexts and using culturally relevant pedagogy.

5. Increase racial diversity across schools

There is strong evidence that racial segregation has a negative impact on student success. Although the diversity of the Boston Public Schools will be increased if more White parents choose to send their children to Boston's schools (slightly less than half of the city is White), the next mayor should not only focus on White parents and schools in predominantly White neighborhoods. This would simply increase the White student populations in neighborhoods that are already predominantly White and only exacerbate the current problem of racial segregation. The Boston Public Schools needs an intentional effort to increase diversity across all the neighborhoods' schools. The main level for increasing diversity it to increase the quality of all schools across the system and particularly schools located in Boston's communities of color.

If the next mayor wants to be the "education mayor," instead of offering large-scale market-based reform efforts, he will need to dedicate the resources to sustain the improvements made over the past 20 years. As a former teacher, future Boston Public Schools parent, and current education professor, I hope the candidates are seriously considering these issues.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

10 Worst Supreme Court Decisions


As the new Supreme Court term begins, I would like to focus on the teaching of Supreme Court cases. Traditionally, social studies teachers (especially AP Government teachers) cover a long list of "historic" Supreme Court cases that set or changed precedence. Often this is done by having students give presentations, or worse, a teacher lecturing about them. While some of the Court's decisions have been progressive (for example, Brown v. Board of Education), others have been incredibly regressive. An excellent inquiry-based activity would to have students work in groups to determine an answer to the following: "What were the 5 worst Supreme Court decisions in U.S. history?" Below is one example of a "Worst Supreme Court Decisions List." I argue that all students (and Americans) should know these cases.

10. Kelo v. City of New London (2005)


The City of New London, Connecticut, took private residences by eminent domain with the specific purpose of selling that land to a private developer who would then turn the plot into a Pfizer pharmaceutical company campus. Susette Kelo sued to protect the right to live in her pink New London home. However, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court sided with New London and all of the residents were forced to give up their homes. This was so controversial that one activist attempted to get the town of Weare, NH to take Justice Souter's home by eminent domain (he had voted with the majority) and convert it into a hotel, which would encourage economic development (the same reasoning in Kelo's case). The worst part of this case is that the plot was never developed, Pfizer left New London laying off over a thousand workers, and to this day it remains a vacant lot.

9. Buck v. Bell (1927)


As part of the eugenics movement, Virgina passed a law (consistent with many other state laws of the time) allowing the state to sterilize the mentally ill, feeble-minded, criminally-minded, or promiscuous. Carrie Buck was deemed "feeble-minded" and "promiscuous" and at the age of 18 was ordered to be sterilized. Buck' guardian appealed the decision and the case made it all the way to the Supreme Court. In an 8-1 decision, the Court ruled that it was in the state's interest to have Buck (and others) sterilized. Buck was then sterilized and sadly died a few years later of measles. This case had never been overturned and sterilization was practiced in Virgina until 1974.  

8. McDonald v. Chicago (2010)


Otis McDonald was a retired maintenance engineer, Chicago resident, and a victim of crime. McDonald legally owned shotguns, but he wanted to own a hand gun to better protect himself. Since 1984, the city of Chicago had a citywide handgun ban. In an unusual turn of precedence that long held that the 2nd Amendment did not protect an individual's right to own a firearm (United States v. Miller). This ruling has made it incredibly difficult for cities or states to curtain certain types of firearms. The dissenting opinion argued that Court was wrong to interpret the 2nd Amendment as protecting the right to own guns for self-defense. Rather, it was written to protect a "well-regulated militia."

7. Bush v. Gore (2000)


The Supreme Court in a 5 to 4 decision ruled that the Florida recount during the 2000 Presidential Election could be completed in the remaining time. Essentially, it decided that George Bush would become president. It may be the most politically partisan Court decision. Justice John Paul Stevens described the case as questioning the impartiality of the court and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg chose to omit "respectfully"in her statement "I dissent." It also may be the only case in history where the Supreme Court writes that this case does not apply to future cases.

6. Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1886)


The state of California taxed fences owned by Southern Pacific Railway Company, but Southern Pacific asserted that the state constitution did not allow the respective tax (they argued the government could tax the land, but not the fences). In a 9-0 decision, the Supreme court ruled that the state did not have jurisdiction to tax fences. Although not explicitly stated, it is the foundation for the legal argument that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment also applies to corporations. This gave the same legal protection to corporations that citizens have.

5. Lochner v. New York (1905)


To protect workers, the state of New York limited bakers to a 10-hour work day and 60-hour work week. Some bakers sued, arguing this violated their constitutional rights of free labor. The Supreme Court ruled with the bakers creating the "liberty of contract" and preventing NY from limiting an employees hours. It not only created a legal precedence for limiting progressive-era work laws, but it also established an imbalance in the law favoring employers over employees that persists to this day.

4. Citizens United v. FEC (2010)


A group named Citizens United produced a film titled "Hillary the Movie" to run right before primary elections in the 2008 Democratic Presidential Primaries. In a case that essentially challenged a specific provision of the McCain-Feingold Act (a.k.a. Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act), which prevented advertising within 30 days of a federal election. In this ruling, the Supreme Court made a sweeping decision, reversing a century of campaign finance legislation and allowing corporations and labor unions have political free speech rights tantamount to the right of individual citizens, who under Buckley v. Valeo can spend unlimited amounts of their own money on electioneering through independent expenditures. Many have argued that this case went well beyond the purview of the original case and the conservative wing of the Court manufactured the decision for political reasons.

3. Korematsu v. United States (1944)


In 1942, 120,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast were unjustly imprisoned in concentration camps. 2/3rd of the internees were American citizens. Fred Korematsu, an American citizen of Japanese descent, refused to enter the prison camps. He was arrested and then forced into the camps. He sued on the grounds that his 5th Amendment rights were violated. In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the need to protect against espionage (despite any actual instances of espionage) outweighed Korematsu's individual rights and the rights of imprisoned Japanese Americans. This decision created a precedence that an entire ethnic group can be imprisoned during war time. There was strong dissent by Justice Hugo Black, and although the Supreme Court has never overturned the case, it was the foundation for a 1983 federal court ruling in favor of Korematsu's challenge to the original 1944 decision.

2. Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)


Homer Plessy was a civil rights activist who challenged the racial segregation laws related to trains in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was 1/8th Black (labeled "octoroon" at the time) and he decided to sit in the White car. He was subsequently arrested and the case made it all the way to the Supreme Court. In their decision, the Supreme Court ruled against Plessy and upheld racial segregation as constitutional. This case created the "separate but equal" doctrine that would be legal grounds for almost all future Jim Crow laws. This case was eventually overturned by Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that segregating children by race in public schools was "inherently unequal."

1. Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)


Dred Scott was a slave from Missouri who was taken into Illinois, a free state, by his master. Dred Scott sued on the grounds that he was taken into free territory and should have all the legal protections of that state. However, the Taney Court ruled that Dred Scott has absolutely no legal rights, because he was a slave and slaves were not citizens and consequently have no standing in court. Referring to the language in the Declaration of Independence, Chief Justice Taney reasoned that "it is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted [the Declaration of Independence]." This decision justified the stance of slaveholders and deeply angered abolitionists, ultimately contributing to a deepening of the rift that would result in the Civil War.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

"Education Improvement" Not "Education Reform"



Reform: n. a removal or correction of an abuse, a wrong, or errors.

Improvement: n. the act or process of making something better.

Merriam-Webster's dictionary has has several definitions for "reform" and "improvement," however, these two definitions embody the current divergent views of educational change in the United States. Language is important. How an argument is framed often reveals important subtext and nuance. For the past 20 years, politicians, the mainstream media, and many self-proclaimed educational spokespeople or "educational celebrities" (i.e. Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, Joel Klein, Wendy Kopp, Geoffrey Canada, Paul Vallas, Kaya Henderson) have been labeling their visions of educational change as "education reform." In fact, if others argue against their "education reforms," they are labeled as supporting the status quo or the interests of adults over students. Of course, this is an artful dodge. Yet, language matters, and those who stand for public education and sustainable change are loosing the public relations war (although the recent PDK/Gallup education poll shows the public opinion is starting to turn). 

I am proposing those who believe in meaningful educational change need to craft the argument in terms of "improvement," rather than "reform." Reform for reform's sake is not improvement. In fact, if you look at the outcomes of 20 years of so-called "education reform" (for a primer, read Diane Ravitch's new book), it becomes very clear that reform does not mean improvement. In many ways, it means regression in the form of a cementing a persistent education gap, re-segregating schools, and decreasing the morale for generally hard-working teachers and parents across the nation.

Those who frame their arguments in terms of "education reform" have been pushing for market-based solutions, mainly in the form of privatization or decentralization, while they claim they have the best interest of children at heart. These groups generally rely on one type of data to assess student learning, results from high-stakes standardized tests. Education reformers claim that "poverty is no excuse" and a lack of resources are not the problem (H.L. Mencken once said "When somebody says it's not about the money, it's about the money."). The education reformers create groups with names that no one can argue against, like "Stand for Children," "Teach for America," "Education Reform Now." They say, unlike career teachers and their unions or parent groups like the PTA, they are dedicated to helping all children get an quality education. Yet, there is an important narrative all these reformers have in common: Our schools are failing, now it is their turn to "reform" them. They generally tie the failures of the American economy to the lack of education reform and contend that if their reforms are not implemented, the U.S. will loose its global economic standing.

However, education reform is not a goal; it is an action. Educational improvement is the goal. Groups that believe in public education, equity of resources, desegregation and support for multiculturalism, and increasing teacher professionalism and retention, need to begin framing the debate in terms of "education reform" vs. "education improvement." Reduction in class size, increasing resources to the neediest schools, supporting the professional development of teachers, increasing teacher pay - these are all part of education improvement. These are what the globally high-achieving educational systems, such as Canada, Finland, Singapore, are enacting in their nations and they offer a different path to "improve," rather than "reform," the educational system in the United States.



Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Teaching America’s Past to Our Newest Americans: Immigrant Students and United States History


My colleague Kerry Dunne (Arlington Public Schools/Brandeis University) and I have an article titled "Teaching America’s Past to Our Newest Americans: Immigrant Students and United States History" featured in this month's Social Education. It discusses the barriers in teaching U.S. history to immigrant students and ways to overcome them.

Here is the abstract: Studying American history is a struggle for even the most diligent, high-achieving immigrant student. The strategies outlined here will make U.S. history more accessible for English language learners.

Article: www.socialstudies.org/publications/socialeducation

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Learning from Singapore: Part 4


In this final reflection on my visit to Singapore and its education system, I am choosing to examine Singapore's attempt to teach multiculturalism through its schools and society. Like the United States, Singapore is a multicultural society, as well as a multilingual and multi-religious society. Their nation's ethnic demographics are: 76.8% Chinese, 13.9% Malay, 7.9% Indian, and 1.4% other. As someone who studies multicultural education, I was intrigued to see firsthand how Singapore addresses the many different groups within their nation educationally. I was lucky enough to visit during the convergence of two important multicultural holidays: Hari Raya Puasa and Singapore National Day. Hari Raya Puasa, also known as Hari Raya Aidilfitri, is the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Fitr at the conclusion of Ramadan. This holiday is rooted in the Muslim Malay community of Singapore, an ethnic minority. I was able to walk the bazaar, where food, clothing, and other celebration items were on sale. My wonderful host and friend Karen Lam, who works for the Ministry of Education, makes it a point to immerse herself in one community activity during each of the many ethnic holidays in Singapore. In Singapore, many non-Muslims visit the bazaars and partake in the celebrations at the end of Ramadan. A few days later was National Day, which celebrates Singapore's independence from Malaysia in 1965. This year's slogan was "Many Stories, One Singapore" and it emphasized the many different people that call Singapore home.

Singapore is a nation that projects strong narratives. Whether it is a narrative crafted through architecture, technology, or multiculturalism, they aspire to be better. However, their multicultural narrative rests more on "national unity" than "embracing differences." For example, the following language was used to describe this year's National Day theme: "all interconnected through our shared stories and history" and "despite our different backgrounds, we are one Singapore." The Singapore narrative on multiculturalism projects a desire to overcome some of the historical ethnic divisions. The reality is there are still signs of ethnic segregation in housing, education, and income. This is particularly prevalent in the ethnic make up of low-wage workers in Singapore, many of whom are Indian and Filipino. Despite the inequities in their society, Singapore has taken the important step of acknowledging this and framing a national conversation on how to improve this (For example, there are racial quotas imposed on public housing, which the vast majority of Singaporeans live in).

Historically, the education system in Singapore did not address multicultural education. British imperialism divided and separated ethnic groups, resulting in separate schools based on ethnicity. Today, Singapore has made great strides in reversing years of ethnic separation in schooling and preserving the many cultures of Singapore. The Ministry of Education has an official stance of creating national unity while helping "citizens not to lose their cultural heritage or traditional values." They have done this by providing required instructions in student's mother tongue (Chinese, Malay, Tamil) along side English. Moreover, "Every year, schools commemorate a few key events that mark the defining moments of Singapore's history... [including] Racial Harmony Day [and] ... International Friendship Day." Singapore has also increased civics education, with an emphasis on multicultural and global citizenship. More can be done. Much of the multicultural education in Singapore is still focused on the three Fs (food, flags, and festivals), but Singapore has taken important steps forward. The United States could benefit from similar attempts, especially teaching the "mother tongue" of our immigrant students or emphasizing the importance of international friendship and racial harmony in our school holidays (and curriculum).

I appreciate all of the kind people of Singapore, who supported my visit. My trip to Singapore was eye-opening and I could not have accomplished this trip without their help. I look forward to returning in the future and learning more about this amazing little red dot.



Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing: Remembering 50 Years Later


On this date 50 years ago, members of the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair, who were four girls attending Sunday School in the basement. This bombing followed Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's "Birmingham Campaign, which included the "Children's Crusade," where children were encouraged to protest in the streets leading to the use of police dogs and fire hoses on children by segregationist Commissioner of Public Safety "Bull" Connor. The murder of four innocent girls in the church bombing opened the nation's eyes to the level of brutality and violent resistance that could be waged against desegregation. One of the most powerful historical sources for teaching the bombing is Dudley Randall's "Ballad of Birmingham." 

Ballad of Birmingham 
By Dudley Randall (On the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963)

"Mother dear, may I go downtown
Instead of out to play,
And march the streets of Birmingham
In a Freedom March today?”

“No, baby, no, you may not go,
For the dogs are fierce and wild,
And clubs and hoses, guns and jails
Aren’t good for a little child.”

“But, mother, I won’t be alone.
Other children will go with me,
And march the streets of Birmingham
To make our country free.”

“No, baby, no, you may not go,
For I fear those guns will fire.
But you may go to church instead
And sing in the children’s choir.”

She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair,
And bathed rose petal sweet,
And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands,
And white shoes on her feet.

The mother smiled to know her child
Was in the sacred place,
But that smile was the last smile
To come upon her face.

For when she heard the explosion,
Her eyes grew wet and wild.
She raced through the streets of Birmingham
Calling for her child.

She clawed through bits of glass and brick,
Then lifted out a shoe.
“O, here’s the shoe my baby wore,
But, baby, where are you?”