In February 2012, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, after a lengthy feud with the state teachers’ union, came to an agreement over a comprehensive teacher evaluation system for the state. The arrangement was made so that New York State would be eligible to receive $700 million of Race to the Top funds, a national sweepstakes spearheaded by President Obama that allocated monies to states that adopted his education policies.
Under the new system known as the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR), 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation would be based on standardized test scores, while the remaining 60 percent would be based on subjective measurements, like classroom observations and student surveys. Then, teachers would be sorted into four categories: ineffective, developing, effective or highly effective.
However, there’s one catch. In the bill, it states: “The new rating system would prohibit a teacher or principal who is rated ineffective in the objective measures of student growth from receiving a developing score overall.” In other words, if a teacher is unable to raise their students’ test scores for two consecutive years, even if he or she is deemed highly effective on the subjective measures, the teacher could be fired.
I recently graduated from Syosset High School. My district’s APPR plan was approved at the beginning of this school year. A month later, the Student Learning Objective (SLO) exams were unleashed on all the students in my school in every subject, including art, music, and physical education. Yes, in gym class, multiple choice exams with colorful green Scantrons were doled out. I wish I were kidding.
Teachers would administer the same exam at the beginning and at the end of the year. By means of value-added measurements and an obtuse formula, the teachers’ effectiveness would be determined. Moreover, in New York general state aid for schools is now tied to teacher evaluation, which puts further strain on the most impoverished communities in our state.
I cannot begin to describe some of the conversations I’ve had with educators, many of whom are veterans with decades of experience in this profession, who are feeling humiliated, demoralized and beaten down by this process.
I didn’t want anything to do with the tests, so I opted out of every single SLO exam. Each time, I put my name on the test booklet and Scantron and then handed the blank items back to my teacher. There were no consequences.
At the same time, a groundswell of opposition was growing. Two principals, Sean Feeney of the Wheatley School and Carol Burrris of South Side High School, took the lead and drafted a letter protesting the evaluation system. As of January 2013, 1,535 principals as well as 6,500 parents, educators, and students have signed onto the document.
If there’s one thing that is absolutely clear to me, it’s that Governor Andrew Cuomo has ignored the voices of students, teachers, principals, and parents who have grave concerns about the evaluations. He is frankly telling millions of students and teachers that their value is no more than a number in a spreadsheet.
What he’s forgotten is that evaluation is best done when the purpose is not to punish and reward teachers but to lend them support, to foster collaboration, to encourage self-evaluation, and to allow for rich and lengthy observations by principals and fellow colleagues.
So Governor Cuomo, tell it how it is. You can fire my teachers. You can close down my school. You can break up my community. You can kill the love of learning in children. But don’t tell me that it’s because you want the best for me. I’m not a stupid little kid. Do you hear me?
The science behind learning has always intrigued me. This afternoon, I finished reading through Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Chef section on meta-learning. On Scribd, you can download the first seventy pages of the book.
Here are the most important points:
“Meta-Learning: META is where you’ll learn to mimic the world’s fastest learners.
Deconstruction: What are the minimal learnable units, the LEGO blocks, I should be starting with?
Selection: Which 20% of the blocks should I focus on for 80% or more of the outcome I want?
Sequencing: In what order should I learn the blocks?
Stakes: How do I set up stakes to create real consequences and guarantee I follow the program?”
On deconstruction: “Deconstruction is best thought of as exploration. This is where we throw a lot on the wall to see what sticks, where we flip things upside down and look at what the outliers are doing differently (and what they’re not doing at all). First and foremost, it is where we answer the question: how do I break this amorphous “skill” into small, manageable pieces?”
Learning Japanese: “There are 1,945 characters in the language, some with as many 15 strokes. But there are 214 radicals. They provide clues to both meaning and pronunciation, killing two birds with one stone. Radicals are also always written in one order: left to right and top to bottom. This all turns an impossible task—learning 1,945 characters—into one that some people can complete in less than two months.”
As you may remember conjugating verbs in school, it’s boring as hell. Ferriss writes: “By memorizing a few verbs in a few tenses, you get access to all verbs. It opens up the entire language in a matter of 1–2 weeks.”
On selection: “The lowest volume, the lowest frequency, the fewest changes that get us our desired result is what I label the minimal effective dose (MED). The 80/20 rule is Pareto’s Law is the principle or concept that you can get 80% of your desired outcomes from 20% of the activities or inputs can be applied everywhere in cooking.”
On sequencing: “The most world-famous black belts, often world-class athletes, teach a hodgepodge of random techniques. Daily classes are submissions du jour that leave students to assemble the puzzle themselves. Some succeed, but the vast majority fail. At the very least, students plateau for months or years at a time. There is no system, no clear progression. Dave had what other coaches didn’t: a logical sequence.”
On stakes: “If you were to sum up the last 50 years of behavioral psychology in two words, it would be: ‘logic fails.’”
“No matter how good a plan is, how thorough a book is, or how sincere our intentions, humans are horrible at self-discipline. No one is immune. The smartest, richest, and most dedicated people abandon commitments with disgusting regularity.
Answer me this: would you work harder to earn $100 or avoid losing $100? The smiley optimist says the former, but if research from the Center for Experimental Social Science at New York University is any indication, fear of loss is the home-run winner.” [Emphasis mine]
M.I.T. Media Lab professor Alex (Sandy) Pentland has written an extraordinary book entitled Honest Signals. He argues that there are a number of unconscious, non-verbal cues that robustly predict a human’s future actions and behavior. Using a device called a sociometer, which looks like a small smartphone, Pentland and other researchers tracked these patterns of “honest signals,” such as “what tone of voice they use; whether they face one an- other; how much they gesture; how much they talk, listen, and interrupt; and even their levels of extro-version and empathy,” of various people in companies and universities.
Pentland writes, “In sales, negotiation, dating, hiring, and many other situations, the signaling associated with these social roles accurately predicts who will succeed, and who will not.” When pitching a business plan to venture capitalists, for instance, the dividing factor between ventures that get funded and those that don’t, is not what the entrepreneurs are saying, but how they are saying it. Quite the opposite of what you learned in school.
Our interactions with one another also provide some unlikely answers. According to the research, creative people, especially, thrive on face-to-face interaction and interact specifically with people in an “interconnected network.” More oscillation between centralized and interconnected patterns of communications yielded higher productivity, in an experiment in the marketing division of a German bank. Pentland says that we now know that 35% of the variation in a team’s performance can be accounted for simply by the number of face-to-face exchanges among team members. Successful people communicate more, talk more, listen more, act positive more often, and reach out to sources outside of their group more. In everyday society, we need to talk to each other on a regular basis. Jared Diamond, in his book The World Until Yesterday, recounts in his visits to traditional societies in New Guinea, that he couldn’t ever fall asleep, because nobody would ever end their conversations at night.
Mimicry, a signal emphasized in the book, is part of the learning process. In school, if adults mimicked empathy and trust, children will slowly adapt to these social cues unconsciously over time.
As sociometers become more readily available, organizations, businesses, companies, and everyday folk can begin to tweak their behaviors and interactions to be more productive.
In marvelous timing, I finished reading Jodi Kantor’s The Obamas, a book documenting the marriage of Michelle and Barack Obama and their lives in the White House from 2009 to 2011. The New York Times reporter shows superb meticulousness in her narrative. The book is dotted with never-before-heard stories and anecdotes.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be reading a number of books on the Obama presidency and posting the key lines.
Here are some of Kantor’s best lines:
The first lady was the worrier, with little trust that government could create lasting change and fear that political life was inherently corrosive. “I didn’t come to politics with a lot of faith in the process,” she had said years earlier. “I didn’t believe that politics was structured in a way that could solve real problems for people.”
Chapter One: FALL 2008
Only a handful of friends and aides knew what Michelle was considering: staying behind in Chicago with her daughters for the rest of the school year while the new president moved to Washington alone. They would all attend the inauguration, of course, but Michelle wasn’t sure the rest of the family had to relocate so soon. Perhaps they could take the rest of the year to research school options, slowly move homes.
Unbeknownst to them, he was running for U.S. Senate. He had made a deal with his wife: it would be his last run, and if he lost, he would leave politics forever.
Chapter Two: JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2009
The Obamas were so young, Michelle like a bride in her long white dress, and what they had accomplished was so monumental. They had arrived, African Americans had arrived, the country had arrived.
The White House was still foreign, a museum, but Chicago was not the refuge they had imagined.
Chapter Three: FEBRUARY–MARCH 2009
The irony was that in those early days, Obama countered his disappointment with Washington with his faith in the country and citizens beyond it. The presidential campaign had left him feeling extremely optimistic about voters: at the end of the day, they were serious-minded, and even if Washingtonians didn’t always understand him, people beyond its borders would, he believed.
Chapter Four: APRIL 2009
Openly influential first ladies like Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton were deemed meddlers, unelected figures who held unearned power. That was the contradiction of the job: presidents made it to the White House in no small part because of their hardworking, canny wives, but once they arrived, the women were exiled to the East Wing and recast solely as helpmeets.
[Michelle] envisioned a White House that was inclusive, diverse, attractive, and chic, showcasing the best of American culture and style. She found Washington stodgy, and she “wanted to push the envelope,” one former aide said, making everything as sophisticated as possible.
Chapter Five: MAY-AUGUST 2009
This was Michelle’s most profound influence on the Obama presidency: the sense of purpose she shared with her husband, the force of her worldview, her passionate beliefs about access, opportunity, and fairness; her readiness to do what was unpopular and pay political costs.
Obama was elected to lead “a rational, postracial, moderate country that is looking for sensible progress. Except, oops, it’s an enraged, moralistic, harsh, desperate country,” one White House official said later. “It’s a disconnect he can’t bridge.”
Chapter Seven: OCTOBER–DECEMBER 2009
FOR THE FIRST SEVEN YEARS of Obama’s political career, he had felt underappreciated, struggling over whether voters beyond Hyde Park would understand him: whether he was too lofty a thinker, whether his name was too foreign and his background too unusual, whether he was too Harvard to win on the South Side. Now, during his presidency, he was experiencing a slow descent back into feeling misunderstood. Later in the first term, there were points when the American public seemed to be giving up on Barack Obama.
Chapter Eight: JANUARY–MARCH 2010
The health care situation epitomized everything [Michelle] disliked about politics, everything she had been arguing about with her husband for going on two decades: her skepticism about whether true change could be accomplished through the legislative process, the way serious ideas devolved into craven horse trading, the way you could risk and give so much and end up with nothing.
Barack tended to analyze failure in systematic terms, avoiding personal judgments, Michelle was much quicker to lay blame.
Chapter Nine: MAY-JUNE 2010
As president and first lady, the Obamas led a social life that was circumscribed in the extreme. They ate at home with their daughters most nights, avoided Washington dinner parties and most galas, and rarely even went out on date nights anymore. Instead the Obamas burrowed ever deeper within a tiny, preexisting circle. Their behavior was on the far side of introverted, Washingtonians noted; even when the Bushes retreated to Crawford they entertained there a lot. Any first couple were isolated by definition, but this was something different, more like self-imposed exile. If the presidency is often referred to as a bubble, sealed off from the rest of society, the Obamas and their closest friends created an even smaller bubble within the bubble—an intimate, alternative world in which the president and first lady could count on total understanding, constant sympathy, and unconditional love. Around the Nesbitts, Whitakers, Jarrett, and select others who were sometimes allowed into the fold, the first couple had a remarkable ability to let the presidency fall away—indeed, the Obamas wanted it to disappear, the friends said.
Chapter Thirteen: NOVEMBER–DECEMBER 2010
The administration’s failure to showcase what it had done, even on relatively narrow issues like water quality, had hurt them, the group agreed; if the administration had been highlighting its accomplishments, they would have had better tools for combating attacks.
Chapter Fifteen: APRIL–MAY 2011
Her husband’s new West Wing team had helped to effect this change. When Bill Daley arrived in the White House, one of the first calls he paid was to Michelle Obama, just to let her know that he was eager to take her needs and concerns into account.
Chapter Sixteen: APRIL–AUGUST 2011
He was more at ease with the exercise of power than the exercise of politics.
In their nearly three years in the White House, the Obamas had changed positions with one another. After all of Michelle’s protests about politics, all the suspense during those first few months in the White House about whether she would find her way, she was going to emerge from the presidency stronger and more at peace, aides predicted.
Except the Obamas were not the same people who had entered the White House in January 2009. How could they be? Power had transformed Barack and Michelle Obama, for better and for worse. They were far savvier and more seasoned than they had been a few years before—their learning curves among the steepest for first couples in recent American history.
But as the Obamas grew more fluent, they also surrendered some of the qualities that had made them so compelling in the first place: their shared mistrust of politics, their reluctance to go the usual routes.
“Principals were scared to death. If their test scores did not go up, they would be fired.”
That was perhaps one of the most disturbing lines of Frontline’s “The Education of Michelle Rhee,” which aired Tuesday night on PBS. As chancellor of D.C. public schools, Rhee created an environment that to put it mildly, was hostile towards hundreds of educators. In the search for innovative ways to reform public education, America’s students need more than what Rhee is offering.
Rhee created an uncanny obsession over test scores, and thus massive cheating and manipulation emerged. Campbell’s Law, a statement created by the notable social scientist Donald T. Campbell, fits well here: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures, and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”
In one class, according to USA Today, statisticians said that the “odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance.” Plenty of cases of teachers erasing and correcting test booklets after school hours were reported, but, not surprisingly,never actually investigated.
In her first year alone, Rhee closed 23 schools. A recent report found that these careless actions cost the city $40 million alone. Let’s fix schools, not close them. Instead of making education some kind of competition like Race to the Top has done, schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods—often the ones who are labeled “failing”—ought to be provided with extra funds to hire the best and brightest teachers or implement breakfast programs. Are we forgetting about Title I?
In her three and a half year tenure, Rhee also fired roughly 1,000 educators, because many of them faired poorly in the IMPACT teacher evaluation system. There is an massive body of evidence that demonstrates that these value-added measures are inaccurate and misleading. One commentator wrote that “the odds of this system are more akin to flipping a coin.” It’s time to acknowledge that test scores are not a correct indicator in determining quality teachers. If students are producing work that is worth time and effort and has lasting value to their lives, then he or she is a great teacher.
As Daniel Stufflebeam says, “The purpose of evaluation is to improve, not to prove.” Of course, every profession has their fair share of bad apples. Instead of threatening teachers, we should be giving more professional development and assistance to those struggling. If it comes to a point where the teacher simply cannot teach or is not willing to do so, then it would be sensible to fire him or her. But again, these are very rare circumstances.
School closings and teacher layoffs have had a tremendous effect on the lives of students across the nation. For many students in these communities, school is their only safe and secure place for a few hours each day. Dislocating them from their neighborhood schools into charters and privately managed ones not hurts them, but also derails the foundation of public education.
What Rhee and so many policymakers don’t understand is that the goal of education is not to garner high test scores, but to cultivate lifelong learners and active citizens in our democracy. As a high school student and author, I want to be taught how to think and create and explore. I’m not a number in a spreadsheet; I’m a creative and motivated human being. I want my teachers to be paid well, given autonomy, and treated like professionals. I want my school to be adequately funded. Is that too much to ask?
Let’s not forget to mention that Rhee’s ethical behavior and style of governing is a serious sign for concern. When she was working in Baltimore as part of Teach for America, she revealed that she once taped the mouths of her students shut because they were acting rowdy. As a result, according to Rhee, skin was peeling off of their lips. They were bleeding. And thirty-five children were crying. Are you serious? Any sane human being would agree that that incident is grounds for dismissal.
Similarly, in her reign as chancellor, Rhee figuratively duct-taped the mouths of students and teachers shut. The last thing policymakers can do is ignore the stakeholders—the people who are in the classroom day in and day out: students and teachers. Once you purposely avoid and fail to value their input, you become a Machiavellian-like figure. Rhee fits that description with ease. When John Merrow called people for sources, he said “the number of people who said ‘no comment’ or hung up…was unbelievable”—a record number for his career.
Currently, Rhee is running StudentsFirst, or as some like to say “StudentsLast,” because there don’t seem to be any K-12 students involved in the decision making process. By leaving her position as chancellor and not facing up to the cheating allegations, Rhee floated above the fray and walked away taller. I ask: Where’s the public outrage? Any journalist who lets Rhee slide without addressing this scandal is contributing to this high-stakes testing epidemic.
Our students deserve more than this. I say call out her bluff and don’t drink the corporate reform Kool-Aid.
Once a week, I’ll be posting links to the best stories that I’ve read in politics, education, and current affairs. Not sure how many weeks I can keep this up, but I’ll try my best.
1. Mark Weisbrot, in the Guardian, argues why Paul Krugman should be President Obama’s pick for US Treasury Secretary.
2. Annie Lowry, in the New York Times, offers research from the Tax Policy Center that estimates that the top 1 percent will pay a rate of more than 36 percent this year, the highest since 1979.
3. Joe Hagen, in New York Magazine, recounts his experience on the National Review post-election cruise to the Cayman Islands.
4. Simon Romero, in the New York Times, documents the life of Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, a liberal world leader that “lives in a run-down house” and supports policies like same-sex marriage, increasing funds for renewable energy, and lowering poverty.
5. Scott Shane, in the New York Times, shares the life of John C. Kiriakou, a former CIA agent that will serve 30 months in prison for leaking classified information to a reporter.
6. Kevin Drum, in Mother Jones, explains that new research finds that lead is the hidden villain behind violent crime, lower IQs, and even the ADHD epidemic.
7. Danny Hayes, in the Washington Post, argues, drawing from research by three political scientists, that social identity theory — identifying with a political party — is “enough to generate unfavorable attitudes toward the other side.”
8. Andrew Goldman, in the New York Times Magazine, has an interview with former GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman — the secret hipster.
9. Emma Brown, in the Washington Post, writes that Washington D.C.’s public charter schools have expelled students at far higher rates than the city’s traditional public schools, based on an analysis of documents.
10. Ian Steadman, in Wired UK, explains that a study has concluded that a school’s design can influence a child’s development as much as 25 percent in a single school year.
11. Joe Klein, in TIME, argues the Chuck Hagel nomination for Defense Secretary will be a warm-up act for Obama’s foreign policy battle in his second term.
12. Matt Taibbi, in Rolling Stone, with colorful language, demonstrates that the Wall Street bailout of 2008 was “one of the biggest and elaborate falsehoods ever sold to the American people” and drastically damaged the U.S. economy and confidence.
13. Gary S. Becker and Kevin M. Murphy, in a Wall Street Journal Saturday Essay, explains that the war on drugs hasn’t worked and perhaps we should follow the lead of Portugal by decriminalizing all drug use and the drug market.
14. Nell Greenfieldboyce, in NPR, reports that, based on a new research, people can’t accurately predict how much their personality and values will change in the next decade.
15. Naomi Wolf, in the Guardian, reveals how Wall Street banks and federal agencies collaborated on cracking down Occupy movements together.
It’s been quite an incredible year in the education space. While we’ve witnessed a surge in the number of politicians with no education experience make decisions on how schools should run and a wider adoption of nonsensical ideas like the “flipped classroom” and value-added teacher evaluations, there have been some memorable, equation-changing events and initiatives that have emerged.
So, let’s highlight five of the most extraordinary things that happened in education in 2012:
1. The Students Speak Out: Students around the nation have seized the national microphone and have begun articulating their voices in education. With hundreds of student protests documented, young people are no longer willing to sit idly on the sidelines. In September, I published my first book on revolutionizing education from a student’s perspective. Earlier this month, Stephanie Rivera and few other college students launched Students United for Public Education in an effort to stop the takeover of public education in America. The group even had a protest.
And this past summer, Zak Malamed founded the StuVoice movement, corralling student leaders onto one platform, giving spotlight to their voices, and making some dents in education policy. For one, Malamed, Matthew Resnick, Joshua Lafazan, myself, and a few other students signed a letter to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo demanding that students be added onto the New York State Education Reform Commission. With the power of social media, we will not stop petitioning, marching, protesting, and rallying until our voices are heard and represented. As educator Diane Ravitch once said, “When the students awaken, the national conversation will change.”
2. Alternatives to Higher Education: One in two college graduates are unemployed or underemployed. Student loan debt has sprinted past one trillion dollars. As of 2010, nearly one in five American households have student loan debt of over $26,000. As former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich told the Class of 2012, “You’re f**ked.” I predict that over the next decade, a majority of parents will finally get some sense knocked into them in standing with the axiom that not every child should go to college.
As someone who constantly questions the ivory tower of higher education, there are alternatives to the four-year college degree springing up left and right. For example, 2012 was the second year of the Thiel Fellowship, a two-year program that offers $100,000 to 20 people under 20 years of age (Full disclosure: I was a semi-finalist last year). The catch? Fellows have to stop out of school for two years. Applications for the 2013 class are due shortly.
In addition, a few months ago, I wrote about a new nonprofit called E[nstitute]. It is a tuition-free—including housing—two-year apprenticeship program that “provides an alternative path to traditional post-secondary education.” The 15 fellows have been working under entrepreneurs for the past few months. The application period for next year’s class is now open. Apprenticeship opportunities have expanded to digital media and advertising companies as well as nonprofit and social good organizations.
3. Caine’s Arcade: You’ve probably heard of this 9-year-old boy from Los Angeles, Caine Monroy. Over his summer vacation in 2011, with his bubbling and bursting imagination, he created a makeshift arcade in his father’s auto-parts shop over summer vacation. His father, George Monroy, gave him all the cardboard, tape, markers, and scissors a boy could ever need or dream of. Remember, this was summer vacation. Unlike most kids, Caine didn’t have sleep-away camp, music lessons, tutors, or any kind of “acceleration” activities. His father gave him the best gift of all — unstructured free time. After 280 hours and a professional video documenting his efforts, Caine Monroy has transformed into a viral sensation, with millions of YouTube hits. And he did it without listening to lectures, reading textbooks, or filling in Scantrons.
Would you look at that?
Forbes magazine believes Caine will be a billionaire in the next 30 years. I wouldn’t bet a dime against him. Albert Einstein’s saying is fitting: “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”
4. Chicago Teachers Strike: In September, the world witnessed thousands of Chicago teachers taking to the picket lines for the first time in a quarter of a century. The point of the strike was to stop the corporate reform takeover—mayoral, not local control, closing schools and turning them over to charter corporations, evaluation of students and teachers with test scores, and weakening teachers unions. Teacher bashing is a popular campaign around the country. But the blame game must end.
I was reminded of the struggle in the aftermath of the tragic Sandy Hook elementary school shootings where the media lauded the teachers as heroes. I read a tweet that went like this: “Those who bash teachers, remember they are the ones who will literally take a bullet for your child.” I’m looking at you Mayor Emanuel, Eli Broad, Michelle Rhee, and Michael Bloomberg. How dare you disrespect our “nation builders?”
5. Massively Open Online Courses—MOOCs: Journalists are calling MOOCS ”a revolution.” I chuckle. How ignorant can someone be about education if they think hearing lectures from talking heads, taking quizzes and tests, and writing essays are a revolution? I’m not impressed. In an interview, educator Roger Schank calls MOOCS a “joke.” Moshe Y. Vardi writes, “If I had my wish, I would wave a wand and make MOOCs disappear.” Me too. One headline of a blog post is: “We can do better than lecture videos.”
Let’s bring learning back to the learners. Why are we disregarding the brilliant work of progressive educators like John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget, and Paulo Freire? We need to allow students to craft their own learning experiences through projects, apprenticeships, and hands-on engagement. In Anya Kamenetz’s book DIY U, she argues that the DIY thinking reverts us back to the “basics—the universitas (guild) and the collegium (community). People everywhere will have a greater ability to create their own learning communities and experiences within and outside institutions.” My advice: Let’s get over the fads and understand that learning is best done through doing, creating, and exploring.
We’re at the cusp of a learning revolution. Seth Godin writes in his new book The Icarus Deception, “When those who love you speak of a life well lived, we’ll talk about the lines you managed to color outside of, the people you touched, and the ruckus you made. Most of all, we’ll remember how you took a chance and connected with us.” Those words should guide us as we travel into the new year—another opportunity to “put a ding in the universe.” Let’s go make some chaos in education.
Silver, who first gained notoriety for forecasting the performance of Major League Baseball players and for correctly predicted the winner of 49 of 50 states in the 2008 election, can save the tattered reputation of math subjects.
For students across the country, there’s clearly an engagement deficit in the subject. Paul Lockhart, a math teacher in New York, writes in A Mathematician’s Lament [PDF] that if he had to design a system for the express purpose of destroying a child’s natural curiosity and love of pattern-making, he couldn’t possible do a better job than is currently being done. He explains that he simply wouldn’t have the “imagination to come up with the kind of senseless, soul-crushing ideas that constitute contemporary mathematics education.”
Across the land, kids hate math. You can hear it in their constant groans and see it in their deranged faces. They ask their teachers, “When am I ever going to use this in life?” On most occasions, they never will. Even President Obama agrees. He recently said on the Tonight Show, “The math stuff I was fine with until seventh grade. Malia is now a freshmen in high school and I’m pretty lost. It’s tough.” And no wonder — the system is suffering from a tragic case of nostalgia. The origins of the current curriculum draw back to 1892 when the Committee of Ten hashed out a standard curriculum, which would eventually be adopted almost unanimously by schools.
Photo courtesy of Ian Hill/Thinkstock/Penguin
One of Adam Lanza’s high school friends said he was “probably a genius.” Another student recalled him as “a very bright kid.” And he was said to have corrected students’ Latin homework when he was 14 years old.
Concurrently, Mr. Lanza was a fish out of water, a misfit, an oddball. He had tremendous difficulty relating to his classmates, was labelled as stiff, shy and dysfunctional.
As investigators scramble to piece together a profile of the man who mowed down 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the sleepy town of Newtown, Conn., and uncover the reasoning that led him to do it, many are wondering what could have been done to prevent him.
While most of American is jostling over issues like gun control, improving mental health care, and reducing violence in media, we’re missing an indispensable element – why schools need to create human beings and citizens who are empathetic. Empathy is the ability to identify and understand the feelings and conditions of another person. Or as Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Empathic Civilization, puts it, “Empathy is the social glue that allows increasingly individualized and diverse populations to forge bonds of solidarity across broader domains so that society can cohere as a whole. To empathize is to civilize.”
In his book The Age of Empathy, primatologist Frans de Waal argues that empathy has three layers. The first is emotional contagion, where people are hit by a flood of emotions during a climactic event. The second layer is feeling for others. We do this through “body-mapping” – trying to “recreate what we have seen others do.” And the third layer is “targeted helping” – where people attempt to ease their emotions through altruism.
Today, there is a dearth of empathy in young people. After analyzing data among almost 14,000 college students over the last 30 years, a University of Michigan study two years ago concluded that college students are 40 per cent less empathetic than their counterparts in 1979. Indeed, the most significant drop has been in the past decade. What’s more, cases of bullying and suicides are climbing at an alarming pace. That means empathy education is needed more than ever before. There is a growing consensus among neuroscientists, psychologists and educators that bullying and other kinds of violence can be reduced by encouraging empathy at an early age.
Primarily, children need to learn how to control and understand their feelings and emotions. We need to place children in capacities to practice and model empathy for themselves. Learning how to step into someone else’s shoes is hard, but without the personal immersion in the process, the experience will be a complete waste.
One program that is devoting itself to this is Roots of Empathy, started by Canadian educator Mary Gordon that has now reached more than 325,000 children in 10 countries in their 16-year legacy. A baby and its mother or father visit a school classroom 27 times during the course of the year. The curriculum is divided into nine themes, with three visits supporting each theme (a pre-family visit, family visit, and post-family visit). Students are asked to carefully observe the interactions that occur between the child and parent as well as their mood, and over time slowly become attached to them. In the process, they are learning emotional literacy, a term Ms. Gordon defines as “the ability to find our humanity in one another.” Later, the students express what they have learned in other subjects.
It’s remarkable to see how babies remake these kids. In a wonderful piece for the New York Times, after observing Roots of Empathy classrooms, David Bornstein writes, “Around babies, tough kids smile, disruptive kids focus, shy kids open up.” After conducting controlled studies specifically pinpointing “proactive aggressive students” – your playground bullies – Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, found that 88 per cent of these children decreased this form of behaviour over the school year compared with the control group where only 9 per cent did.
Roots of Empathy is typically for schoolchildren from kindergarten to eighth grade. I can’t see a reason why this program can’t be implemented in high schools around the world. Even the most bruised and battered students will succumb to the power of a baby.
Ms. Gordon often says, “Empathy can’t be taught, but it can be caught.”
Could a program like Roots of Empathy have ultimately prevented Adam Lanza from mowing down innocent children and adults on a December morning? We will never know. But what we do know is that if we spawn an empathetic society, if we lend our hearts and souls to those who are hurting inside, and if we bring lonely and ignored people into our circles of friendship, then the number of families who lose a loved one from an act of violence or bullying will be largely extinguished.
Today, I was quoted heavily in a USA TODAY column: More students thinking twice about the value of college degrees. It also features the work of Michael Ellsberg and Dale Stephens.
It outlines my thoughts on college and the underlying problem in public education fairly well:
Nikhil Goyal, a 17-year-old high school student, speaker and author of One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School, argues that while doctors, lawyers and engineers should go to college, those with a desire to major in the liberal arts should think twice about attending. Seminars, online communities and classes, forums and freelancing could replace it.
“I don’t believe there’s anything in a liberal arts course that you can’t find in the library or on the Internet, except for the discussion aspect,” Goyal said. “However, there are seminars and online groups, very cheap and accessible, by which you can fill that discussion facet.”
If students have the opportunity to go to Ivy League schools, however, they should still attend for the opportunities that being associated with that brand name will reap, Goyal argues.
“If you have an opportunity to go to those universities, you should,” he said. “While the likelihood that you will have real-world experiences and engage in meaningful work is slim, having that degree and that stamp of approval can make a significant difference later in life.”
“What I’ve noticed when I’ve spoken with employers is that their perceptions toward prestigious degrees and just college degrees in general are really declining in the sense that they are taking people who have real-world experience, who have apprenticeships and internships under their belt, who can actually solve problems and do real work versus somebody who just has a 4.0 GPA, who went to Harvard and got a degree,” Goyal said.
Goyal said the public education system has been indoctrinated with the idea that the purpose of school is to create obedient and submissive people, an idea brought to the United States with the birth of public education.
“We can’t treat children like factory workers and people who are just going to memorize and regurgitate information,” he said. “We have to shift that mindset to understanding that learning is messy, learning does not necessarily happen in an academic and formal setting.”