stephanie jones

Archive for the ‘institutions’ Category

Jumping back in with both feet – Who needs rules?

In class-sensitive teaching, communities, creativity, Education Policy, every day stories, institutions, Reggio Inspired Schooling, Standing up for Kids on January 29, 2014 at 5:32 pm

“Kids only get in trouble when they’re bored,” an educator from an elementary school in Auckland, New Zealand says, and kids don’t have time to be bored when they are fully engaged.

“Engagement” and “engaged” are two words we hear a lot in U.S. education reform and practice. But what do they really mean? Whose version of the words do we intend when we use them?

I’m jumping back into the blog after months of wiggling my way into a new research site that is in a community where most kids of all ages have the run of the neighborhood. They run through backyards, crawl in ditches, shoot hoops in the road, jump fences, chase the occasional chicken, run from and with dogs, play soccer in the red clay dirt, and swing as high as they can so their jump off will be more exciting.

The kids in this neighborhood don’t need plastic or wood playgrounds, their whole neighborhood is their playscape, and their imaginations are wide and impressive. Old picnic tables become stages where songs and dances are performed, which may be an activity that “educators” can find some value in. But what about jumping from swings sailing way above our heads?

A research study is underway in New Zealand that challenges the assumptions that guide so many of the “rules” governing children’s and youth’s playtime at schools. Four schools agreed to abandon their rules for the playground and the initial findings are simultaneously fascinating and predictable.

Watch a news report and read an article here about the research and its impact on one school.

Is it possible that adults’ rules create harsher social conditions for kids?

Is it possible that adults’ rules create barriers to full physical and cognitive engagement?

Is it possible that adults’ rules restrict kids’ creativity, imagination, motivation, and – dare I say it – “engagement”?

Sitting outside in the community where I am doing work, I watch a four-year-old boy climb to the top of the wood-and-plastic playground apparatus and I predict that he will slide down the cylinder-shaped slide.

But he doesn’t. And I can see how one adult expectation of how the playground equipment is “supposed” to be used could restrict play – and therefore development. Come to think of it, how fun is it really to continuously, day in and day out, climb up the steps in the same way and slide down the slide in the same way? Even a four-year-old masters the expected use of the playground equipment and boredom starts to set in.

Instead of sliding down, he struggles to pull himself up on top of the cylinder shaped slide, grunting and pushing his small arms to their limit until he manages to get one foot in place and finally the other.

Standing on top of the cylinder slide, arms stretched out to his sides, this young boy has achieved something. He is standing on top of the world looking out over the playground, the swings, the picnic tables, the tree trunk seats, and even the one-story homes that surround the playground.

He smiles.

Then jumps.

I have to admit that my heart skipped a beat and I’m pretty sure my eyes tripled in size and my mouth fell open. Yes, I am questioning and challenging the ways adults restrict children’s bodies (and therefore minds), but I am not immune to the assumptions circulating in a society that is saturated with “safety” mindedness and rules. What if he gets hurt? Should I intervene and stop him? Should I talk to the kids and create a rule about not jumping off the top of the playground equipment?

He lands, hard, and jumps up laughing and smiling and runs to the other side of the playground.



He struggled to make his body do something new, do something he didn’t know for sure he was capable of doing but confident enough to give it a try, and he did it. It wasn’t pretty or graceful or effortless, but it was evidence of motivation, perseverance, risk-taking toward the outer range of ability (determined by him), and success.

Is this not what educators wish children and youth would consistently do?

Being engaged in something isn’t just going through the motions of what was already planned ahead of time. For this young boy, continuing to climb up the steps and slide down the same slide in the same fashion day in and day out and well beyond the time within which he has mastered the activity does not produce “engagement.” When he is faced with having mastered the expected use of the equipment, he makes decisions about whether to abandon the equipment altogether or innovate a use of the equipment that will be more challenging (cognitively and physically – though I don’t see those as separate). Indeed, he figures out a way to challenge himself without the help of well-intended adults who may create a new activity for him that isn’t appropriately engaging. Part of the attraction and motivation of this new task that he has decided to take on may, in fact, be the unpredictability of it, the fact that the outcome isn’t already determined and every step between the beginning and ending laid out in a predictable fashion. He has to depend on himself and his creative use of the materials available to him, not someone else’s plan.

The Auckland school hasn’t entirely abandoned all rules for the playground, but the rules they do create are created in conversation with kids as issues arise. To too many adults such an approach is way too inefficient. Isn’t it easier to just have the rules ahead of time, teach the rules to kids, and then have adults around to surveil the kids and ensure rules are followed?

My response would be that efficiency in the eyes of adults is not equal to a commitment to the development and growth of children and youth. Educators are not supposed to be aiming for efficiency, but for something much more complex and beautiful: the cultivation of young people who are comfortable in their own bodies, confident enough to take risks, imaginative enough to grow beyond themselves, and content with who they are.

This young boy’s accomplishment was met with his own laughter and smiles and running off to continue his journey of mastering new things. He didn’t look to adults or peers for approval, and I’m pretty sure that powerful feeling that so many of us have had throughout our lives of “I can do that” planted a seed of certainty in him that wouldn’t have been possible had there been rules about not jumping off the playground equipment.

My witnessing his work/play also planted a seed of certainty in me that offers a little more comfort in standing back and letting children play in the ways that make them feel good by pushing themselves physically and cognitively. The Auckland school has found that “no rules” on the playground has resulted in a significant decrease in bullying behavior, a significant decrease in kids being in “trouble,” and a significant decrease in the need for adults to be supervising the playground.

“No rules” actually seems like it could be an “efficient” way to rid playgrounds of unbearable taunting and bad behavior.

Perhaps efficiency and engagement could find  a way to live among one another after all.


**Thanks to JT for passing along the no rules article and to the Browns for inspiring me to jump back in after a long hiatus from blogging.


Can Non-Authoritarian Education find a space in Occupy Wall Street?

In institutions, justice, NCLB, Neoliberalism and Education, social action, social class on October 17, 2011 at 12:53 am

Thanks to Teri for sending this along!

With this amazing grassroots movement emerging against corporate power, corporate greed, and economic inequality – where might education find its space within it? If, for example, people in the U.S. are sick and tired of the corporate model of running a society, then people are likely also sick of the corporate model running schools. If that’s the case…what kinds of schools would be responsive to the needs and desires of the people?

Perhaps a non-authoritarian model where children/youth work individually and collectively toward socially responsible ends?

This might be the perfect time to insert educational goals in OWS!



“Time to Tax the Rich” says one of the world’s richest men

In democracy, discourse, government, institutions, justice, politics, poverty on August 15, 2011 at 7:16 pm

Thanks to MV for passing this along – Warren Buffett has always gone out on limbs and here he goes again. He knows our country – especially our country’s politicians – has lost its way and fairly taxing the most wealthy is exactly what can lead us to the right path. In this article he tells of paying around 17% of his taxable income while many middle-class Americans pay up to 40% of their taxable incomes. Buffett calls it “coddling the rich” and I couldn’t agree more. Coddling those at the very top of our income earning ladder who have acquired the majority of the economic resources in our country makes us a country of extreme Haves and Have-Nots. Those who have abundance wealth enjoy more tax credits and access to powerful people while paying a much smaller overall income tax, and those who are on the bottom 90% of the wealth ladder pay higher taxes, get less from the government in terms of tax credits and safety nets, and end up barely being able to pay their bills and feed their families.

And what about “entitlements”? I have practiced a new response to all those people who tell me that “government entitlement programs must go” before we raise taxes on anyone:

1. Do you own a home? Are you paying a mortgage? Then you are part of (probably the nation’s largest) entitlement program – it’s called your mortgage interest tax credit and in many cases it earns you more per year than a family receives from the government in food stamps per year.

2. Are you, or do you know, someone who owns land registered as agricultural for tax purposes? Wooops. There’s another entitlement program.

3. Have you taken on any home improvement projects to lower energy costs and submitted those receipts for a tax credit? Hmmmm….

4. Do you send your child to private school and live in a state where there is a loophole for claiming that tuition as charitable contributions to an educational institution? There’s another.

5. And what about these entitlements: You are entitled to police security in your community; You are entitled to being protected by a fire department if you need them for any reason; You are entitled to drive and walk on public roads and sidewalks; You are entitled to free and public education from grades Kindergarten through 12. Want to get rid of those too?

We are not yet entitled to any of these things with dignity if we are poor or struggling in any way, but there sure is pride and dignity in receiving that mortgage interest tax credit/entitlement!

Thanks Warren – we need more of you and your fellow billionaires to speak out loudly and clearly.


a thousand paths to happiness…including one little book

In communities, creativity, democracy, Education Policy, family-school relations, freedom, great books, institutions, justice, teacher education on June 25, 2011 at 11:26 pm

“There are thousands of paths that lead to happiness, but you have accepted only one. You have not considered other paths because you think that yours is the only one that leads to happiness. You have followed this path with all your might, and so the other paths, the thousands of others, have remained closed to you.” Thich Nhat Hanh’s new book, you are here: Discovering the magic of the present moment, is such a delightful treat to read and consider and I am enjoying myself immensely each day when I settle in and drink another paragraph of wisdom.

A thousand paths to happiness has me really thinking though, and I couldn’t resist jumping on the computer and pounding out a few lines (one thing that often makes me happy) about this notion and what it might mean to me – at least in this moment.

If there are, indeed, thousands of paths to happiness, then all of those thousands of paths should be encouraged and valued and celebrated and shared. In other words, diversity wins again, and not only should we encourage and celebrate diversity, but we should do everything possible to prevent any kind of restrictive ideas that limit possibilities and promote standardization of human beings and life in any way.

If there are, indeed, thousands of paths to happiness, then why aren’t we actively teaching children and youth to seek happiness, or better yet to “be free to experience the happiness that just comes to us without our having to seek it” (Thich Nhat Hanh, p. 75). This could move us a long way beyond the false promise of a “good job” so well-advertised throughout every level of education.

If school isn’t about promoting thousands of paths toward happiness, then what is it and why would we want to do something other than teach toward happiness?

Some readers are blowing me off now, huffing and puffing at their screen because they think it’s all fluff to teach happiness – so without going into excessive detail here, I’ll add that working with passion and engaging in intellectual journeys around academic content or in a workplace can be a path to happiness. Don’t worry reader – we’re not going to end up with a society of non- “workers” because everyone is sitting lotus-style in a forest seeking happiness. We might, however, end up with lots of people who refuse to sell their soul and time/life to corporations doing meaningless “work.” Wouldn’t that be interesting?

Has anyone out there ever read a school vision statement that included the words “happy” or “happiness”? I’d love to hear if you have.

And this ‘thousands of paths’ has me thinking of other things regarding “diversity” – we humans are all just different and somehow we keep trying to shove us all into the same-sized box. Just like ecological diversity is imperative to the survival of earth, human diversity is also imperative to the (healthy) survival of the species. While this is not only about the “size” of us humans (it’s also about our lifestyles, family and community structures, livelihoods, homes, interactions, relationships, physical looks, tastes, etc. etc.), diversity in size and shape should also be a consideration. I’m stuck on this a bit because of the recent onslaught of the “Obesity Epidemic” across the country and the fetish we seem to currently have around body measurements, plastic surgery, and the persistent metaphorical and literal chiseling away at natural diversity among bodies.

Just one example –

Body Mass Index (BMI)  and the push for schools to include children’s BMI on report cards even though CDC reports there is no evidence that such actions would change anything about childhood health and/or obesity.

Folks have – and will continue – to debate me that “there is a real obesity epidemic – parents need to know their children’s BMI and what those numbers mean and get control over what their children are eating.” Okay – and what role has school and Corporate America played in this heavy-ing of America’s children? Do we slap some numbers onto a child’s report card and insist that parents do something to change those numbers when kids are at school 7-8 hours a day and have to complete 2 hours of homework between 4pm and the 8pm bedtime? I might be exaggerating a bit in some contexts, and underestimating in others – but this is yet another way to tell parents how they are the individuals to blame for a societal problem that is only exacerbated in schools: over-processed foods are served for breakfast and lunch in cafeterias and recess is non-existent for most children above the age 8 and limited to only 10 minutes for children up to 8 in public schools.

Hmmmmm….schools work harder and harder to get kids to sit still and be quiet for 7 hours at a time preparing for tests and covering standards while only breaking to eat over-processed foods that are high in fat and sodium, then expect the kids to sit at home for 2 more hours at night to do homework and schools are going to “report” children’s BMI to parents so the parents can fix it?

I’m against the use of numbers for nearly everything and BMI is included – I always believe a holistic perspective on a person’s health and lifestyle is much more important than a single number that may be used to determine categories that label and blame and shame people. But let’s pretend for a moment that I accept BMI as some good indicator of a child’s health (even though CDC might argue against that). Perhaps we might allow schools to include the BMI on the report card and demand they also include a specific plan the school will take to ensure the child has access to healthy foods and sufficient exercise and physical play during the day. In other words – the BMI becomes a reflection of the way an institution operates rather than good or poor parenting.

So back to a thousand paths to happiness…

Maybe if we taught children to feel happiness, to see the infinite possibilities for happiness, to see happiness in unexpected places, and to cultivate happiness through mindful practice (including mindful practices of eating), we might find ourselves educating the most diverse, happy, healthy children on earth. What if school’s purpose was to cultivate happiness, peacefulness, contentedness, connectedness? Of course some private schools and home schoolers have been doing this for a long time, but what if public schools put these purposes first and foremost in their work? The possibilities make me smile – and happy.

Listen up Reformers – Parents are looking for something completely different from what you are offering

In communities, creativity, democracy, Education Policy, family-school relations, high-stakes tests, institutions, NCLB, Standing up for Kids on June 15, 2011 at 9:21 pm

Here’s a great article by a parent in Philadelphia – ideas I completely agree with and I really hope Reformers are listening.


And here’s a little story of my own:


I pulled my daughter out of public school last year.

It was one of the most difficult decisions I have made in recent history; one I dreamt about, talked incessantly about, and did everything possible to not make the decision I ultimately made. And even though Hayden isn’t in public school right now, I continue to fight (and scream, and blog, and cry, and work) for public education.

Hayden now attends the “Freedom to Grow UNschool” (sounds lovely, huh?), and with one year under our belt, I am so relieved that I did make that decision. Her third grade year, which would have otherwise been overshadowed by the mandatory state test, was incredible. She studied a local park, researched the medieval times and questioned economic inequities reflected in housing and fashion, she planned and carried out a fashion show as a result – from start to finish, she experienced what it was like to edit the school newspaper published once a month, she studied the Mississippi floods, accelerated her understanding of foundational and analytical math, she learned about the Children’s March during the Civil Rights and connected it to civil rights issues today and what children can do to make a difference, she learned how to compost, how to track animals, identify trees, and use some basic survival skills in the wilderness. She painted and constructed and read and danced and wrote and pretended and analyzed and experimented and inquired and sang and laughed and learned the messiness of maintaining a community where everyone is valued even when everyone doesn’t agree with one another.

All in one school year.

And in a school where there is a “no homework” policy.

Her achievements in 3rd grade were remarkable – truly impressive even if I wasn’t her mother:) And I know things would have been entirely different for her and us had we left her in the school she was attending – a Title I school under the stresses of NCLB where the 3rd grade test is all that matters, teachers were required to be “on the same page”, the gifted class is focused on state standards, field trips are rare, recess almost non-existent, and homework every night. During her 2nd grade year she cried on a regular basis; begged us not to take her to school; had nightmares in her sleep; accidents in her pants (!); regularly lost her 10 minute recess for having to use the restroom at the wrong time of day; and learned that school was a place she had to go, but she never expected it to be a place of joy, curiosity, creativity, exploration, and building a foundation of lifelong learning and engaged citizenship.

What State legislators and other Educational Reformers don’t understand is that parents, like us – even the hard-nosed-public-education-is-the-backbone-of-democracy parents, are sick of the education we have been stuck with since the NCLB hammer started pounding on local schools.

We are sick of the small-thinking.

We are sick of the stress.

We are sick of the standards.

We are sick of the essential questions.

We are sick of the pre-tests, the post-tests, the practice-tests, the “real” tests, the awards for tests, the pep rallies for tests, the “how-to-parent-during-state-testing-week” newsletters, the computerized tests, the reading tests, the math tests, the “if you can write it down on a piece of paper we’re gonna test it” test.

We are sick of AYP.

We are sick of homework that brings on tears and resistance and family misery every night.

We are sick of every child being in “intervention” – constantly – to improve test scores. (Yes, every child in my daughter’s school went to “intervention” every single day…what in the hell kind of education are we creating called intervention??!!)

We want schools to belong to us and to our children and we want inspired and compassionate and intellectual teachers to lead us.

We want our teachers to be creative, and inspiring, and spontaneous, and curious – not stressed out because they’re not on the same page or lesson as the teacher next door, or that they might lose their job because the school isn’t meeting AYP, or that their evaluation and salary might be positively or negatively impacted by students’ test scores, or that their lesson plans aren’t in the right format, or that they didn’t get all their pre- and pre/pre- and post- and post/post- testing done in time. I mean with all that stress, who can respond calmly and compassionately to a child sitting in front of you? Or who can jump up and decide that third or fourth graders studying literary uses of the weather need to run outside when it’s raining to see for themselves all the different ways rain could be used in literature as symbolism? Or who has the energy to schedule guest speakers and local field trips during an intensive study of the local economy and how a community can build sustainable practices and promote more equality amongst its citizens when they have mountains of paperwork to complete and more tests to give and prepare to give? (Oh – and sustainable communities isn’t a part of the Standards, so it’s a side-project to begin with, strategically hidden from other teachers and supervisors).

We want our children to love to learn, to read, to question, to analyze, to contemplate, to sing, to perform, to draw, to play, to have friends, to feel like school is a happy and meaningful place to be.

We want our children to have recess. (Yes, we actually believe that children and adolescents need unstructured play time during the day – we prefer not to think of our pride and joy heading into a sweatshop every day).

We want our children to smile. To feel valued. To be perceived as possibility and promise – not as a potential test score.

In short – my family specifically, and lots of families across this country have suffered because of Educational Reform. And we’re sick of it – every single bit of it. Even the incredibly condescending and superficial “family engagement plans” schools now have to have parents sign and return to school each year.

Give back our teachers.

Give back our rights for a well-rounded, rich, high-quality education.

Give back our children’s childhoods.

Give back our family’s sanity.

Listen up Reformers – you are driving us mad, and driving us away. We are looking for something completely different from the menu of options you are serving.







Why talking about social class matters…

In American Dream, classism, institutions, justice, poverty, professional development resources, social class on June 4, 2011 at 3:15 pm


This is why I write about working-class lives and lives lived in economic insecurity.

This is why I reveal so much about my life that others would work hard to hide.

This is why I revel in vulnerability so others can find their footing more confidently.

Listen closely.

You might miss it, because I nearly did and I’m always listening for these things.

There is a slight knock on my office door and a slightly built young woman with sweat beading on her face looks at me as if she is scared and nervous and small. I’m expecting her, a masters student who emailed to ask if she could meet with me about her program of study.

“Do you mind if I sit?” She walks uncomfortably into my office, looking at me with an expression that I can’t place.

“Of course not, please, sit down.”

“I’m here to get some details about my program. I began in the summer and want to finish by next summer.”

“Alright. Well that means you will definitely have to register for comps this semester so you can write in the spring.”

“Can I ask you a stupid question?” she asks, still sweating and not quite looking at me.

“Of course. No questions are stupid.”

“What are comps?”

“Comps is what we call our Comprehensive Exams that all masters students must pass before they graduate.”

I pause and smile.

“I had heard everyone talking about them, but I didn’t know what they were at all. Is it like a test?”

“You will receive five or so questions from which you will choose one to write about, then you will write a ten page paper in response to the question. It’s a good idea to start keeping notes and references now from your readings and courses so you have them nearby as you write, because we do expect that you will cite readings and course discussions to support your argument in the paper. When you turn it in, two faculty members will read it.”

“So it’s not a standardized test or something like that?”

“No, we want to know that you have learned something deeply in your program and can articulate that learning in relation to what it means to teach. It’s a take-home paper.” Smile.

Her face relaxes a bit and I think I know why she’s sweating and nervous. Comps are scary. Not knowing what the scary thing is is even scarier.

“Okay, great. So what have you taken so far?” I ask and pull out a grid to begin penciling in courses that meet requirements in our program as she reports the memorized course numbers and instructor names. When prompted, she describes a bit about the course so I can decide where it “fits” in the program of study. We talk about classes she can take in the spring and she wants to know if I am teaching a course.

“Yes, but it’s a doctoral seminar. “ Strange. I know I’ve never met this young woman, maybe she’s just asking to be nice or she’s heard about me before.

“You know, in my Thursday class we’re reading your book,” is that a redness in her face? “and I read it as an undergraduate and kept it and didn’t sell it back like most of my books and I have so many things underlined. But it’s really amazing that now I feel like I’m getting so many different things out of it and I’m underlining different things. I love your book.”

“Thank you. That’s really nice.”

“I mean, I kind of connected with what you were writing about in your life. I’m the first person to go to college in my family too.”


Of course.

Now the pieces are falling into place.

“And you know, as a junior when we were reading that book and I was surrounded by all these girls in my class who weren’t from families like mine at all, I always felt intimidated by them and I was afraid to speak up. But when we were discussing your book I was like raising my hand! I was telling everyone that I can talk about those things from firsthand experience!”

Smiles – and maybe redness in my face?

“It made me proud.”

“Thank you so much for telling me that – it’s exactly why books like this in school are so important, so people who have never felt quite comfortable in school settings can have a space where they feel privileged and valued. Thank you for sharing that, it makes me really happy that my book could do that for you.”

“It did! And when I found out you worked here I couldn’t believe it! I mean, I thought you were this amazing famous person because you wrote this kind of book.”

Ahhhh. Now the nervousness and sweating is becoming even clearer. She was afraid of meeting me!

“And that’s why I didn’t know what comps were. No one in my family has ever been to college, much less to graduate school, so I have never had a clue. I went to group advising, but I thought I could come here and ask you about comps.”

She talks about her freshman year and earning enough scholarship money to live in a dorm but spending most of her nights at home in a neighborhoing County with her family. By her sophomore year she was living full-time back home and in her junior year she found a roommate who was – very surprising to her! – from a poor family who was proud of their Goodwill shopping, coupon cutting, and figuring out how to eat with little or no money.

“I’ll probably never meet anyone like her again,” she tells me, “but it was perfect that we were roommates. We didn’t have to hide any more.”

Her body and her face transform and she is now a tall-sitting, confident, excited talking young woman who didn’t even resemble the person I had opened my door to.

“Now I’m married and we live in the same apartment that I had with my roommate, in fact, now I’m the resident manager so we only have to pay one-half the rent. We do everything we can to cut down our costs.”

She’s moving to another city next summer and she plans to get there plenty early enough to do community ethnographic work where she’ll be teaching well before school begins, “Just like in your book,” she tells me.

“I did so many of those things even in my student teaching. I did home visits and went to a Quincierita, and really listened and learned about my students’ experiences at home and with money and how I could make connections with them to make sure they felt proud of who they are. I just know that when I have my own classroom I can do even more.”

Our conversation lasted much longer than the 30 minutes I had scheduled it for and I knew my daughter was waiting impatiently for me at the YMCA to pick her up, but these are the moments I continue to revel in.

And marvel at.

When perfect strangers seek me out because of something I said about working-class families or poverty or first generation college students or just because they had been assigned my book.

As we ended our conversation she apologized four times, “I’m sorry I’ve kept you so long.”

“You’re gonna have to work on that you know. Not apologizing. You deserve to be here talking to me just as much as anyone else does. Don’t apologize…I enjoyed the conversation just as much as you did.”

We smile and I want to grab her and hug her and thank her and wish her all the best in her today and future.

But I’ve just met her.

And she was nervous and sweaty about meeting me.

I didn’t want to traumatize her again.

Anyone want to move to Finland?

In democracy, discourse, Education Policy, gender and education, institutions, NCLB, Neoliberalism and Education, politics, professional development resources, teacher education, teacher education resources, Teaching Work, work and workers on March 20, 2011 at 3:20 pm

This interview is very eye-opening and brings the current wars against teachers in the U.S. into perspective. Italics are inserted by me to emphasize some aspects of the interview.

Thanks to J.E. for sending this out on his listserv…

March 16, 2011
An interview with Henna Virkkunen, Finland’s Minister of Education
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Hechinger Report: It’s well-known that Finland’s teachers are an elite bunch, with only top students offered the chance to become teachers. It’s also no secret that they are well-trained. But take us inside that training for a moment – what does it look like, specifically? How does teacher training in Finland differ from teacher training in other countries?
Virkkunen: It’s a difficult question. Our teachers are really good. One of the main reasons they are so good is because the teaching profession is one of the most famous careers in Finland, so young people want to become teachers. In Finland, we think that teachers are key for the future and it’s a very important profession—and that’s why all of the young, talented people want to become teachers. All of the teacher-training is run by universities in Finland, and all students do a five-year master’s degree.  Because they are studying at the university, teacher education is research-based. Students have a lot of supervised teacher-training during their studies. We have something called “training schools”—normally next to universities—where the student teaches and gets feedback from a trained supervisor.

Teachers in Finland can choose their own teaching methods and materials. They are experts of their own work, and they test their own pupils. I think this is also one of the reasons why teaching is such an attractive profession in Finland because teachers are working like academic experts with their own pupils in schools.
The Hechinger Report: How are teachers evaluated in Finland? How are they held accountable for student learning?
Virkkunen: Our educational society is based on trust and cooperation, so when we are doing some testing and evaluations, we don’t use it for controlling [teachers] but for development. We trust the teachers. It’s true that we are all human beings, and of course there are differences in how teachers test pupils, but if we look at the OECD evaluation—PISA, for example—the learning differences among Finnish schools and pupils are the smallest in OECD countries, so it seems that we have a very equal system of good quality.
The Hechinger Report: How does Finland incorporate immigrants and minorities into its educational system?
Virkkunen: We haven’t had so many immigrants in Finland, but we are going to have more in the future—and we need more because we have an aging population. In some schools, in the areas around Helsinki, more than 30 percent of the pupils are immigrants. It seems that we have been doing good work, also with the immigrants, if we look at PISA results. Normally, if children come from a very different schooling system or society, they have one year in a smaller setting where they study Finnish and maybe some other subjects. We try to raise their level before they come to regular classrooms. We think also that learning one’s mother tongue is very important, and that’s why we try to teach the mother tongue for all immigrants as well. It’s very challenging. I think in Helsinki, they are teaching 44 different mother tongues. The government pays for two-hour lessons each week for these pupils. We think it is very important to know your own tongue—that you can write and read and think in it. Then it’s easier also to learn other languages like Finnish or English, or other subjects.
The Hechinger Report: What roles do teacher unions play in Finland? In the U.S. right now, unions are seen as a big problem standing in the way of reform. What’s it like in Finland?
Virkkunen: It’s a totally different situation in Finland. For me, as Minister of Education, our teachers’ union has been one of the main partners because we have the same goal: we all want to ensure that the quality of education is good, and we are working very much together with the union. Nearly every week we are in discussions with them. They are very powerful in Finland. Nearly all of the teachers are members. I think we don’t have big differences in our thinking. They are very good partners for us.
The Hechinger Report: What do you think the U.S. can and should learn from Finland when it comes to public education?
Virkkunen: It’s a very difficult question. An educational system has to serve the local community, and it’s very much tied to a country’s own history and society, so we can’t take one system from another country and put it somewhere else. But I think that teachers are really the key for a better educational system. It’s really important to pay attention to teacher training, in-service training and working conditions. Of course, the teachers always say we also have to pay attention to their salaries. But in Finland, it seems that the salaries are not the main reason it’s an attractive profession. Teachers aren’t very badly paid. They earn the average if you look at other academic professions.
The Hechinger Report: In the U.S., it’s estimated that 50 percent of new teachers quit within five years. I suspect it’s different in Finland. Is teaching seen as a lifelong career in Finland?
Virkkunen: Teaching is a lifelong career in Finland, but right now we are doing an evaluation of why some teachers leave their jobs. The rate isn’t very high. It’s often men who leave, as they find jobs with higher salaries. We have to develop some kind of mentoring system because the new, young teachers need support. Often the feedback I hear from young teachers is that it is not easy to cooperate with parents, for example, so that is one of the areas where young teachers need support from their colleagues.
The Hechinger Report: What’s something important but not widely known or well understood about public education in Finland?
Virkkunen: We teach all pupils in the same classrooms. We don’t have really good, top schools and very poor, bad schools. We are quite good at giving special support to students with learning difficulties. About 25 percent of our pupils receive some kind of special support, but in regular classrooms—often the teacher has an assistant in the classroom. We also think it is very important that there aren’t too many pupils per teacher. We don’t have legislation limiting class size, but the average class size for all grades is 21. In first- and second-grade, it’s 19.

We think we can have equality and good quality at the same time—that they are not opposites.

Our students spend less time in class than students in other OECD countries. We don’t think it helps students learn if they spend seven hours per day at school because they also need time for hobbies, and of course they also have homework.

Wow…Michelle Rhee the Sara Palin of Education?

In Education Policy, high-stakes tests, inquiry, institutions, justice, Neoliberalism and Education, politics on March 18, 2011 at 2:09 pm

Here is a very interesting website devoted to Rhee’s record and reforms. She is certainly making the rounds, visiting Georgia lawmakers last month and heading to other places next. $50,000.00 speaking fee? Goodness – if that is true I’m really floored. We all have to make a living, but she’s on the fast track to being a wealthy education celebrity who doesn’t seem to know much about education at all…


And her accusation that the ‘seniority’ system in teaching is reason for the massive outsourcing of jobs to overseas workers? Geesh…she really needs to read in economics. Should we also blame teachers for the nuclear disaster in Japan? For the economic crisis on Wall Street? For the anti-Western sentiment around the world?

Come on Rhee – educate yourself. Get a clear sense of what neoliberal economic policies are doing to our country and the globe and humble yourself enough to recognize that “education” as big as it is in the world of educators – has long served the wills and whims of conservative economic desires. And you are not a “reformer” – you’re simply falling right  in line with a long history of education administrators and policymakers who can only see a narrow vision of education as the production of workers while doing everything in their power to exploit the “workers” (read: Teachers) in the system to work harder with fewer resources and less moral support.


Obama on LGBTQ bullying…and CDC website for LGBTQ youth

In democracy, families, family-school relations, identity, institutions, justice, professional development resources, social action, Standing up for Kids, teacher education resources, Uncategorized on March 17, 2011 at 8:26 pm

Love this!


Obama’s video message to LGBTQ youth.


And the Center for Disease Control’s website for LGBTQ Health – great resource!

Diane Ravitch in Mother Jones? I’ve seen it all…

In corporations, democracy, Education Policy, institutions, justice, NCLB, Neoliberalism and Education on March 16, 2011 at 1:39 pm


Check out this great story about, and interview with, Diane Ravitch in Mother Jones.

The Education of Diane Ravitch

Should public schools fear billionaires? Is Finland a poster nation? An interview with the nation’s leading education historian.

— By Kristina Rizga

Thu Mar. 10, 2011 11:10 AM PST

When I called education historian Diane Ravitch last week to ask her MoJo readers’ questions, she was on the other line with producers from The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. Stewart, whose mother worked for years as a teacher, was about to do a segment on Wisconsin and “the greed” of public school teachers; the show needed a guest who could add context to Fox News pundit clips in which financial sector workers earning $250,000 a year could barely pay their mortgages, but teachers earning $50,000 a year with benefits were overpaid. Ravitch—a surprising, prominent, conservative voice in the education debate—didn’t disappoint. Between Stewart and Ravitch, the resulting Daily Show segment delivers a stinging rebuke to those who’d strip public school teachers of their collective bargaining rights.

Ravitch, who served as Assistant Secretary of Education in George H.W. Bush’s administration, came by her fiercely pro-teachers union views the hard way. An early and ardent supporter of No Child Left Behind, she backed charter schools, merit pay, and school vouchers. Then, sometime around 2004 when the effects started to become apparent, she changed her mind. Ravitch now opposes aggressive Michelle-Rhee-style education reforms, and her work provides important “fact-checking” on proposals that overstate their capacity for solutions (like charters or using student test scores to evaluate teachers). This matters when reformers like Rhee sometimes receive untempered adoration in media and policy circles.

Ravitch’s most recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Undermine Education, critiques No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the punitive uses of testing to fire teachers and close schools. She spends a chapter on the growing power of a few foundations—like Gates, Broad, and Walton—that she argues are reforming schools at an unprecedented degree without adequate local input. Critics of Ravitch say that—calls for better curriculum, child health care, and increased funding for early childhood education notwithstanding—she doesn’t offer alternative solutions for education policy makers.

Mother Jones spoke with Ravitch about teacher tenure, No Child Left Behind, and for-profit charter schools.

Mother Jones: What is your greatest concern about the direction of public education in the next ten years?

Diane Ravitch: The advance of privatization and a renewed push for vouchers. That we will actually go backwards in this country and that the public education system will become a dumping ground for kids who didn’t make it into charters. That we’ll see in many cities a degradation of public education. That there will be charters skimming off gifted and high-performing kids and we’ll create a two-track system.

MJ: Would you support charters, if we got rid of for-profit charters and only had non-profit charters?

“We should totally ban for-profit charters. For-profit’s first obligation is to its stockholders, not to its children.”

DR: We should totally ban for-profit charters. For-profit’s first obligation is to its stockholders, not to its children.

But even on non-profits, there should be a cap on salaries, so that the operator can’t be paid a lot more than the average salary of the public system.

I support charters, but the right kind of charters. I support charters that support kids who have the highest needs. A charter should be targeting students who are in serious trouble. It should serve students who didn’t succeed in public schools when it can help them. Or, at least, charters should agree to accept similar proportions of the kids with the highest needs.

Charters should be subject to the same rules governing conflicts of interest and nepotism that apply to public schools, and they should go through the same financial auditing. In New York State the Charter School Association went to court to prevent the public auditing of their books, and said as charters, they should be free of that. But they get public money. How can you be free of auditing? They say they do their own auditing. That’s not enough.

MJ: In your book you have a chapter called, “The Billionaires Club” in which you critique what you see as overly top-down education reforms by the big foundations. Many grassroots organizations in the US are supported by billionaires like Ford, Rockefeller, and Soros. How is what Gates, Walton, and Broad doing in education different?

DV: What’s happening now is venture philanthropy. They look at their philanthropy as an investment. They start off with strategy and a reform idea which they believe is right and then they say here is the money, but you have to do what we tell you to do. When Eli Broad funds medical research, he doesn’t tell them how to do medical research. But he has very clear directions for public schools with a pro-charter school and teacher evaluation obsession. Gates gave a billion dollars to break large high schools into small high schools and then decided that wasn’t working. And now he’s moved on to teacher evaluations. Well, he never made a public accountability statement about why small high schools weren’t working. We don’t really know what his inner logic was. The big issue that concerns me is that they are using their money to control public policy and they have no accountability.

MJ: Speaking of teacher evaluations, what does your ideal teacher evaluation look like?

DR: A good teacher evaluation would primarily rely on an experienced supervisor, who has had many years as a teacher. Who was a successful teacher, who visits classroom on a regular basis. And if he sees a teacher who needs help, he is able to provide help, and to refer teachers for professional development. This should not be a gotcha game. It should be used as a way of figuring out how to support teachers and mentor them and give them whatever they need to be better at their craft. A supervisor should look at the scores, take them into account, consider them a part of a personnel file, and not turn them over to the Los Angeles Times. But it’s something to consider if no one ever learns to read in Ms. Jones’ class, if you see if it’s a particular class, and then use it to make decisions about whether she is in the wrong career.

I had a falling-out with a foundation executive who doesn’t agree with me on this. He went to visit different places and he said, “what do you do when you have a bad teacher?” and the response was “we help them.” “And what if you help them and they are still a bad teacher?” We help them more.” I think at a certan point when you get a peer review and you get supervisors and you get help, at some point it does become clear if this is not the right job for you.

Our schools are not overwhelmed with bad teachers. The biggest problem we face with teaching is high turnover rate. Fifty percent of the people who enter teaching are gone within five years.

Part of the mania that we’ve been living with in the past two years is this idea that our schools are overwhelmed with bad teachers, and it’s not true. I think that is a part of the effort to undermine public education. The biggest problem we face with teaching is high turnover rate. Fifty percent of the people who enter teaching are gone within five years. That creates a revolving door when most communities want and need a stable experience. Instead of how to fire the bad teachers, we should talk about how to help teachers and give them the confidence to be the best they can.

MJ: What is your opinion on teacher tenure?

DR: First of all, there is no such thing as automatic tenure. Tenure is a decision made by an administrator and it should be taken with deliberation and after sitting in a teacher’s class. It also doesn’t mean life employment. If an administrator watched you teach, evaluated you, and makes a decision that this person is entitled to a due process, then depending on state—some have three years of probationary teaching and some have four—tenure in K-12 education means that if someone wants to fire you, you have a right to a hearing.

And the reason this exists is to protect against political favoritism. Before there was tenure, there were many cases where people hired their friends and relatives and then the political party changed and other people brought in their friends, or contributors. Tenure makes sure that teachers are not fired for their race, sexual or political orientation, or just because the principal didn’t like you.

MJ: What about layoffs based on seniority?

DR: We don’t have a merit system, so seniority makes sense more than any other system we currently have. If you base layoffs solely on test scores, you incentivize making these tests the measure of all things. And we will have a dumbing down of education.

If you were going into a hospital, and had the services of an intern or a resident, that’s what you’d be getting in education if you remove seniority. What you’ll see are people who are enthusiastic, but who come and go frequently. And you’ll see principals who save money by laying off experienced teachers no matter how good they are.

MJ: Is there a country that has figured out a perfect merit system?

DR: I’d say that Finland has. It’s the poster nation. They don’t have any attrition in Finland. They have made teaching a highly respected and desirable position there. Government pays all of one’s college expenses, and it’s very competitive. Once they are in, they give them tremendous support.

MJ: How would you reform No Child Left Behind?

DR: What must be eliminated are all of the federal sanctions. They don’t work. Federal government should have no power to tell states how to reform schools. The Federal government doesn’t know.

Accountability should not the federal governments business, other than running the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) and giving states adequate information about the trend lines in their states.

The law should be a supportive law, not a punitive law. It has a list of punishments. It should have adequate funding for early child education, and it should be focused on communities that need it most. And there should be adequate funding for special education. The thing that strains the budget for every school district is that Federal Government mandates special education and it’s supposed to provide 40% of the funding and it’s never done that. I think they only give about 12%.

If a school is struggling, you don’t kill it. You find out why it’s struggling and provide help. There is no “one size fits all” approach.

When the schools are struggling, it’s usually because they have a super load of kids who are very poor, and don’t speak English, and have very high special needs. And every school has a different reason for why it’s struggling. And if the school is struggling, you don’t kill it. You find out why it’s struggling and provide help. There is no “one size fits all” approach.

MJ: Do you think we still need some kind of external measures to check local claims?

I think we could do something like sampling. It’s okey to have tests, but we have to use them diagnostically: to help kids learn better and show teachers what they don’t know and see where they need help. But you can’t then take those tests and say we are going to hold you accountable based solely on the scores and we are going to give out rewards and punishments. When you use tests for money rewards or to fire people, then you begin to distort the measure and the test and everyone starts funny things: cheating, turning schools into testing factories, making the tests more important than instruction and gaming the system.

MJ: Are there ways in which teacher unions should improve to work better for parents and children?

Their job is to make sure that teachers have rights. Their job is to go to the state legislature and make sure that there is enough money for schools, so that schools have decent class size. That’s the best thing that unions do for parents and kids. They advocate for children in state legislature. And the states where unions have little or no power have cut the schools to the bone. Teachers were very badly treated before there were unions.

The reason there are attacks on unions is because they are reliably Democratic and so you have governors who are trying to cut their legs off. It will strengthen their position politically. It will also make it easier to cut education budgets. Taking away the collective bargaining rights is only going to hurt children.

MJ: Most Americans support collective bargaining rights for teachers. But some teachers and parents have told me that unions should reform. Are there any areas in which you think they could improve?

DR: I’d like to see unions work more closely in a relationship with parents. So that they understand that they have shared interests. Together they will be a more potent force in supporting public education.

Front page photo: Jack Milller

Kristina Rizga covers education issues and culture for Mother Jones. She’d love to hear your ideas on what she should be covering in schools. Email her at You can also follow her on Twitter. Get Kristina Rizga’s RSS feed.

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