Thursday, March 27, 2014

Global Competence? Deeper Learning? Technical Skills? . . . For Everybody or Some? . . . Says Who?

So already, thanks to a constellation of articles in the Boston Globe earlier this week (Monday, March 24 and Tuesday, March 25), there's still more to talk about regarding who in America should be learning what, when, and for whom. Though in our democracy, we speak often and reverently of everybody--everybody has certain entitlements and responsibilities--we persist in having a terrible time talking about everybody in American education. The fact is that while every American student is entitled to an education intended to make next positive life steps possible, not every American student needs, wants, or is ready at the same prescribed moment for the same educational program or opportunity. Our policy-making efforts are hampered by the fact that the focus of our efforts--teenage children--are constantly changing because they're adolescents and still developing: we struggle to talk about and respond to students' needs and differences as present but not necessarily permanent realities. In addition, we tend to think very differently about the great abstraction of "American high school students" and the American teens we know and see daily for whom we advocate, hope, and generate creative and personalized educational solutions on an ongoing basis. For the students we don't know, we devise programs and policies to address problems and needs; with the students we do know, we carefully build relationships in the contexts of which we support, guide, confront, challenge, and encourage them as they navigate school as it is.

Our Different Perspectives May Not Be Our Biggest Challenge
Whatever our adult struggles of perception, response, and distance might be, the economic, linguistic, social, and learning differences of American students do not eradicate their common entitlement--and those differences must not rigidly dictate which educational choices and paths are open to or designed and selected for them. But several of the Globe  articles that have me writing today suggest that our different philosophies and perceptions may not be what most complicates educational dialogue and problem-solving. Our bigger problem may be a reluctance to express the values and priorities that underlie our educational proposals. One of our tactics is to provide few specifics about which students we have in mind; what exactly they need, lack, or deserve; and on the basis of what research we've concluded this. When it suits our purposes, including our desires to be perceived as citizens who care about everybody, we hide behind deliberate obscurities that mask our willingness to predispose certain students to certain futures. This vagueness leads to anger, then blame, and then--all too often--absolution of oneself and one's organization or movement from responsibility, present or future. Once again, the interests of one group of students are pitted against those of other groups in conversations from which student voices are absent. Talk stops, and the status quo persists.

So here are the articles that have gotten me thinking and writing. My apologies ahead of time to any of you who try to open the links below and are unable to. 
"Mass. schools require dramatic change, report says"
Of all the articles that are listed above, the one that's most dangerously obscure is the first one. Its first sentence does not specify if the "state's employers" are looking at high school, two-year-college, or four-year-college graduates, although the word "children" in the following sentence offers us a clue: "More than two thirds of the state’s employers report difficulty hiring employees with the appropriate skills, underscoring the need for major changes in how Massachusetts educates its children, according to a report and survey set for release Monday by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education." Furthermore, while the Business Alliance sees the creation of more charter schools as part of the solution to the problem, even though the article offers no data about the number of charter school graduates whose skills have led to their being hired for the "'good jobs, high-tech jobs'" that too often go unfilled, it also worries that an over-emphasis on standardized tests, which charter school students also must pass, is "to the detriment of . . . skills critical to success in the workforce, such as the ability to think critically, communicate, and collaborate."

The article lays out a partial list of desirable soft, non-technical "workforce success" skills that students should have, but does not offer a comparably specific list of missing technical skills, even though the absence of these is the problem the Business Alliance wants addressed*: are we talking about the competences laid out in the state vocational education frameworks, or about other skills as well? In the Rindge School of Technical Arts, the vocational school within Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS), the technical and technological overlap considerably in such areas as graphic communications, graphic design, business, biotechnology, and video production. But a number of the technologies that students use in these technical fields are also used for teaching and learning in the other courses they take at CRLS.  So what technical skills are we actually talking about? Some specificity here would really help, especially in terms deciding when and where students should and could be mastering them.

While the response comments on the web site identify and question a number of the article's assumptions and offer a range of possible solutions to the employment problem, most respondents agree that the primary role of secondary schools is not to train workers--which may well put them at odds with members of the Business Alliance. No data is provided about the schools and programs in which Alliance members' own children are enrolled and whether their children are being expected to develop the technical skills needed for employment in MA businesses, which always raises an important moral question about who should dictate what kinds of schools and programs will serve "other people's children." The article speaks of the need for an educational climate and era that "'unleashes greatness." But will greatness be unleashed by increased technical skills? Personally, I think human greatness, the appreciation of it if not the aspiration toward it, matters greatly (there's that word again, this time in adverbial form); in fact human greatness has been the overarching topic explored in my AP Literature and Composition class for the last four years.  But as any of my former students would tell you, "greatness" means many different things to different people and needs to examined from different perspectives. If the concept of "greatness" is going to underlie educational policy decisions, it needs to be understood commonly, at least to some degree.

"Walsh makes push to get struggling teens summer jobs"
So are there connections between the skills deficits the Business Alliance has identified and the lack of corporate willingness to create more summer teen employment? The front page of the Boston Globe suggests that there is, offering the two stories in the same outlined rectangle, as you can see above, and entitling the entire section "Applying Pressure." According to the teen summer jobs article, "Economists say that summer and part-time jobs play an important role for teens and the broader labor market because they can provide the experiences, skills, and sense of responsibility that help teens succeed over the course of their working lives." While the article isn't specific about the kinds of skills that teens gain through summer employment, it is clear that these skills and the greater sense of responsibility that accompanies them benefit the teen employees. The article also says that a number of large Boston firms do not hire teens, or at least Boston teens, and even names several. It would be interesting to know how much overlap there is between firms that offer teen jobs and firms that belong to the Business Alliance advocating for school change for the sake of the technical sector. Are there some employers who expect to help young employees learn job skills on the job and others who do not?

"Hundreds of parents band together to oppose charter school expansion"
Meanwhile, as made clear in the Globe article about parents speaking out against the raising of the cap on the number of charter schools in Boston, not every Boston parent shares the Business Alliance's belief that more charter schools are the answer. Predictably, but still significantly, parents cite as their concerns the effect of charter funding practices on district school programs and the under-representation of English language learners and students eligible for special services in charter school student bodies. Mark Kenen, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter School Association, acknowledged that proportional representation of "the most vulnerable" students, as Mendell School parent Ellen Shattuck Pierce described them, is a work-in-progress. But having taught for a year (2001-2002) at Boston's English High School,** which had large numbers of Spanish- and Somali-speaking students who were very much in the process of learning English, and among whom there were a number who, like many of their English-speaking classmates, had special learning needs, I can't feel genuinely enthusiastic about "improvements" to which "the most vulnerable" are less likely to have access and for which they are likely to pay programmatically because of the current funding practices.  So many EHS students (not all!) were poor and marginalized, but so many of them (not all!!) wanted to learn and make something of themselves. I love what many charter schools do and achieve, but I can't forget those EHS students whom I knew by name, face, and the effort they were making in a strange, new place that didn't yet feel like home.

"In China, Michelle Obama turns her focus on education"
So what do Michelle Obama and the Great Wall of China have to do with any of this? According to the Globe, "The purpose of Obama’s weeklong visit is to promote educational exchanges between the United States and China." I loved seeing the photo of all three Obama women on the Great Wall; it reminded me that a week earlier, the CRLS winners of the second annual EF Tours Glocal Challenge had also had the opportunity to visit China--Shanghai rather than Beijing. "Over the course of . . . [only one] month [last October], CRLS students [had] worked with graduate student mentors from Harvard Business School, MIT and Hult International Business School to identify a local social problem that was important to them, research how other companies have addressed that issues on a global scale, and then develop their own innovative social enterprise business plan to implement in Cambridge," explains the feature on the CRLS web site. The two teams of students whose designs won the contest traveled free to China; most of them would not have been able to travel to China had the trip not been free. 

Like Michelle, Malia, and Sasha Obama, I got to walk on the Great Wall; seeing was believing, and thrilling. Two years ago, thanks to the generosity of the NEA (National Education Association Foundation and the Pearson Foundation, I visited China with a group of similarly honored teachers, each representing his/her home state. Because a major purpose of our trip was authentic educational exchange, we needed to situate what we were learning about Chinese education in the context of Chinese culture, past and present. Though my fellow educators and I completed an online course prior to our visit to China, nothing could compare with the visit itself in terms of shaping and deepening our understandings of things Chinese, our understandings of one another and ourselves, our senses of who might learn what from whom. When two months later economist Jeffrey Sachs, at a plenary conversation at the August 2012 Project Zero Future of Learning Summer Institute, insisted that the best way to understand places and the people who lived in them was to visit them, that simply reading and thinking about them wouldn't do, I couldn't have agreed more.

The following September, back at our home schools, my fellow teachers and I faced the same challenge that the CRLS Glocal Challenge winners and their mentors now face: figuring out how to share significant insights and experiences effectively, vividly, memorably with fellow students and colleagues who stayed home.  Perhaps any group seeking to share knowledge and understandings it has developed through its unique experiences and process faces a similar challenge. I began by having my students use the Right Question Institute's Question Formulation Technique, one of my favorite tools for ensuring that learning is for everybody, to generate questions about Beijing's motto, pictured on the banner in the photo. The discussions the students' questions generated over the next few days became complex fast: since--oh so fortunately!--one member of the class was from Beijing and another had parents who spoke Chinese fluently, we began by exploring the translations and connotations of the motto's words.

Teaching for Global Competence and "The changing face of citizenship"
The truth is that few American public school students will get to travel to lots of distant and different places.  But as my classroom story shows, all of them will virtually or actually encounter people, products, ideas, languages, and problems with origins in distant places about which they currently know little--such as Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria, the countries of origin of a growing number of immigrants to Massachusetts, according to the last Globe article listed above. Given the certainty of such encounters, schools need to educate students not merely for interested and respectful acknowledgment of diversity and globalization, but for global competence. As this graphic sets forth, our students need to develop the skills that will allow them to investigate the world, recognize perspectives, communicate ideas, and take action. We can't just talk about others; we must be able to to talk to others. [Please note: The graphic above comes from Educating for Global Competence: Preparing Our Youth to Engage the World by Veronica Boix Mansilla and Anthony Jackson, which can be downloaded for free.***]

Global Competence:  For Whom, and How Soon?
So should everybody be educated to develop global competence (which, in my mind, is akin to being educated for deep understanding and even for college-and-career readiness when the Common Core is implemented creatively and not reductively)? Or should some American students be educated to become globally competent, while others are educated to become proficiently literate and technically skilled? Should only those students who encounter immigrant children be educated for global competence? Or is it children who are immigrants or the children of immigrants who should be educated for global competence? Or are these new and recent Americans the children for whom proficient literacy and technical skills are sufficient educational goals? Suddenly, I find myself feeling sinking unhappily into a 21st-century Americanized version of Brave New World.

But there are more difficult challenges. Can everybody be educated for global competence? If so, how soon? What if we can begin to educate some but not all for global competence, for reasons of funding and/or teacher preparation? Should we begin to do that as long as our plan is eventually to educate all? Even if we fear we can never afford to educate all? What if beginning to educate some has an adverse effect on the quality of what we can offer to others, even in just the very short-term? When should we feel justified in educating "some" differently than others, and for what purposes?

The pull-quote from the "changing face of citizenship" article, from a recent emigrant from Ghana, begins with the following sentence:  "'We love to be citizens of this great country.'" There's that word "great" again--and it carries with it all the possibility of the unleashing of that greatness via education and work, all the hope that's expressed by the name, provided in both English and Chinese, of a business several blocks from my home:  Promised Land Realty Group LLC.  

The Challenge of Talking Honestly Across Our Differences 
We live in difficult, contentious educational times, not all of us equally committed to equity and excellence, to democratic process, and to the "Life, Liberty, and pursuit of Happiness" of everyone who is proud to be part of this "'great country.'" But those differences among us have always been the case. Perhaps our best hope is that those empowered to shape or make policy be forthcoming with education-related specifics and educational reports before they generate authoritative sets of recommendations and make binding decisions on the basis of them. If those specifics and reports become the basis of honest, respectful dialogue and negotiation that includes the voices of students and their parents, perhaps we really can do right by everybody. But frankly, it's the honest, respectful part that most worries me.  Who will be honest enough to admit to caring little or not at all for everybody?

* The actual report may identify these skills, though the Boston Globe article, which the general populace is more likely to see, does not.
** Mansilla, Veronica Boix., and Anthony Jackson. Educating for Global Competence: Preparing Our Youth to Engage the World. New York, NY: Asia Society, 2011. Print.
*** Photo address: <> from "The Adventures of Sam and Caroline" blog: <>


  1. I think a big part of the problem is that we equate education with school, and with degrees.

    As citizens, we are at the mercy of global politics, and we need to be generally educated just to survive. Think of the families swept into war, or worse, the families who dive into war.

    I am reminded of the chilling conclusion to Thunder At Twilight where the crowds in Vienna cheered madly as their sons marched in uniform off to World War I. They roared approval for fighting that killed and maimed so many, completely swept aside their world, and set the stage for depression and another war 25 years later. Wisdom is not a luxury; it is a necessity.

    It was true then, and it is true today with the rule of billionaires, a surveillance society, climate change, and non-stop war all looming.

    But you are not going to teach wisdom in high school. The kids are in a blender of emotions; too much else to learn. At best, you might give them a head start.

    Education needs to be a lifelong pursuit, and an accepted civic routine. Continuing education that is fun and social. Plenty of 20 somethings and older would show up to meet people, and, hey, maybe learn something.

    Imaginative video learning would attract eyeballs. I know you have told me that so much of that is already being done, but I do not believe it. Not on the level that it needs to be to attract a broad audience.

    Also, our universities are completely failing the public by narrowly restricting themselves to “their jobs” -- churning out degrees.

    In an age where print journalism has died, cable journalism is the most outrageous tabloid entertainment, and propaganda organs for the powerful (“think tanks”) easily dominate public discourse, where are the universities? Not their job to get involved.

    It damn well should be. Universities should form consortiums, and run programs where college kids build and update websites about public affairs and public debate. And do lots of other stuff to ENGAGE with the real world in real time.

    In a society where the rules of Congress make absolutely no goddamn sense, where are the law schools or government schools proposing new rules? Not their jobs.

    As a society, we need to come to a new understanding about what education we need, and build new institutions to provide education to people when they are ready to learn, and in a fashion that will make it appealing to learn.

    And most of that is not about reforming high school. High school is the wrong time and place for most of the education that we need. Kids are whacked out on hormones and the traumas of becoming adults.

    Probably high school should do more to make available programs for kids to learn job skills, assuming that the kids won’t go to college. I am not sure it is a big crisis, but I think pretending that everyone will go to college makes it a stigma to just become a working joe. And, anyway, it is dishonest. Some kids NEED some sort of training and orientation to help them get entry to the work force. But those same kids are going to need continuing education to cope with their world. Just because we may send some kids to shop class does not mean that those same kids don’t need to learn history and music down the road.

    Otherwise, they may end up cheering for their own demise, like their great-grandparents did.

  2. Hi, Jim --

    Interesting to read your thoughts about which institutions are washing their hands of all of this, even though we could "end up cheering for . . . [our] own demise.

    I agree with you that job skills are terribly important for lots of kids who are not going to go to college right away, or perhaps ever. Like you, I hope that for those of them who choose to pursue more education, or simpler more knowledge, later for whatever reason, there are employers and opportunities that will make that easier rather than harder in terms of time and money.

    My husband Scott talks a lot about the need for a self-governing people to be well-educated in order to choose wisely for itself as a people. Your "cope with the world" phrase resonates with me a lot!

    Thanks, Jim!

    1. Home sick, today. Idle hands, and all that.

      When I read through my first comment, I was struck that it might seem like an attack on your post. Actually, I liked your post. Smart and thoughtful (they don’t always go together). Still.

      Still, what?

      I guess my view is that writing should have one of two purposes: a call to some specific action, or general consciousness-raising. Maybe your post struck me as half way in between.

      The only part of your post I did not like was the appeal to rational decision-making at the end. Clearly, that will not happen. Politics, as we do practice it, is not about that. So an appeal to a general, chimerical process is a cop-out.

      First option: answer your own questions, and tell us exactly what we should do. Second option, go visionary on us. Obviously, the first approach is far more helpful.

      My response to your post was in the less helpful second category. Indeed, it is a high bar to ever demonstrate that the second approach is helpful, and, well, as for my response -- let’s not go there.

      But playing devil’s advocate, why should we fundamentally re-think our approach to education?

      First, our democracy has been growing weaker during the past 35 years, and especially during the last 20 years. It started with the end of the Fairness Doctrine in broadcasting law, abetted by the rise of cable and satellite technology. The decline has accelerated with the destruction of campaign funding restrictions, and the increased military/intelligence agencies in response to 9/11 and the political uses made of 9/11.

      So there is that. Our society is increasingly dominated by propaganda.

      Your husband is correct (as about so many things, no doubt); we need educated citizens.

      We also need more wisdom and happiness as a part of our daily routine. (Everything has to be made part of a daily routine to be real.) We are social animals. We need social routines.

      We have churches, but those often do more harm than good. We have parent activities that center around the school life of children, but that is limited in time and focus. We have bars. Lions and Elks Clubs, I guess. That is about it.

      In my view, continuing education programs could become a secular town square. But it would have to be fun.

      Yeah, I know, some stuff is happening in that area. But no one really believes it is IMPORTANT. We do not place much emphasis on it, and little creativity is directed that way.

      If you know otherwise because of your inside information, then that confirms that it does not exist to any significant extent. If you need insider information, it is not a general force.

      Anyway, that is why I was inspired to rabble-rouse to the 12 people who read my response to your post. :)

      I think there are extreme limits to what can be achieved IN TERMS OF SOCIETY’S NEEDS (not for an individual student) through reforming high school. In my view, it is go long, or go home. Our universities have to chip in, and we need to get serious about building continuing education social life into everyday living.

      The flip side is that high school IS happening, and continuing education is NOT happening in any meaningful way, and is unlikely to be happening in any meaningful way anytime soon, so it is insane to fret about nothing when there is something important that can be addressed right now. From that point of view, your post is relevant, and my response is raving.

      Probably that is the right answer.

      Anyway, at the end, we are back at the beginning: what is to be done?

    2. Hi, Jim --

      First of all, hope you're feeling better.

      And I actually didn't feel your first response to my post was an attack. I've found your comments good fodder for my own thinking, both in terms of the education issues and purposes of blogging and writing for a public more generally.

      I can’t tell you how excited I am that a non-educator such as yourself is willing to think about this.

      "I've got fury in my soul" when it comes to education, to quote Laura Nyro’s song "Save The Country." But I’ve got that teacher tendency to raise questions rather than answer them, even though I often have an idea of at least a good partial answer.

      I also have worked for a couple of bosses who retaliated against those with “different” ideas, subtlely but surely. I sometimes shared questions rather than answers to protect myself and my colleagues. You’re reminding me that a reason I started this blog was to say what I felt I better not say before; those bosses have no power over me now!

      So here’s an answer, and I’m going to try to offer more in future blog posts. It has to do with both this blog post and my previous one, in which I talk about Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy.

      If there's going to continue to be a link between salary level and level of education, I want industries that are pleased to hire young people with good technical skills, with or without associate's degrees, to develop programs or policies that make it possible time- and/or money-wise for these employees to earn college diplomas.

      Boston subway cars are full of ads for relatively inexpensive degree programs with evening and weekend classes. But relatively inexpensive is prohibitively expensive for some, especially if daycare or nightcare costs are added. Would love to see employers offer education sabbaticals (or even half-time sabbaticals) to people with high school diplomas or associate’s degrees—because learning, like working full-time, goes better when one isn’t completely exhausted.

      I don’t see this “2 more years of college-level work” (the associate’s degree folks already have 2 years) as being about workplace content skills. I’m envisioning an opportunity for thinking and talking about those subjects that seemed stupid and unimportant in high school—and important now. I’m talking humanities, arts, social sciences—as retro as they are considered to be by many.

      I like your secular town square idea a lot, including your emphasis on fun. I see the online world as having some great educational uses, but I don’t think it replicates the kind of exchange you can have around a table or in a square.

      You also write, “Yeah, I know, some stuff is happening in that area. But no one really believes it is IMPORTANT. We do not place much emphasis on it, and little creativity is directed that way.” I believe there’s a lot of creativity that is being directed that way, but not by the people with power, money, and status, who won’t think it’s important until they can invest in it and profit.

      More soon about "what is to be done?"

    3. Since school is happening, as you say, I'll spend more time on them in my next post. Too much of the best teaching that happens today flies under the radar, but as long as it can keep flying that way, that may be kids' greatest hope!!

    4. It's articles like this one that make me want businesses that hire folks without college degrees to support--minimally with the best financial advice possible, but ideally with time and money--their trained workers who lack college degrees:

      When education, is first and foremost a for-profit endeavor, students literally and figuratively pay the price.

    5. It might be a good idea, but I worry about corporate controlled funding. Whoever funds has the power.

      I have a general approach to my work that I did not invent. In fact, you probably have taught the approach in some context.

      1. Think of all the problems, big and small. Do not try to limit your imagination.

      2. Group problems together, and prioritize.

      3. Think up possible solutions. Do not try to limit your imagination.

      4. Select most likely solutions that address the top priority problem(s), and that you might have allies to implement.

      5. Organize.

      In our social and political culture of the past 20 years, there is an abundance of step 1 and 2. Bloggers.

      There are a few 3 and 4. Not too many.

      Almost no 5.

      We need 5.