A Winning Attitude

Some years ago I volunteered to coach a high school chess club.  Let me share some observations about the team members’ attitudes toward talent and ability.  My point will be illustrated well by the two top players, who I’ll call Player A and Player B.  From the beginning, both players were solidly ahead of the others in terms of playing strength.

Player A liked to think of himself as “naturally gifted.”  He loved to challenge much weaker players, and reveled in beating them soundly.  Sometimes he would offer odds (i.e., concede a piece at the start of the game), or contest multiple games simultaneously, to underscore his dominance.  On the other hand, he was utterly unteachable.  If I offered some advice about tactics or strategy or clock management, he would try argue with me.  And argue and argue.  And then he would go back to playing for easy wins against totally outmatched opponents — always seeking to validate his view of being blessed with a gift of chess talent, and blocking any evidence otherwise.  In the four years that I knew him, he didn’t improve even in the slightest.
Player B was was equally good, at first.  At least, that is my considered view, having watched both A and B routinely dispatch their adversaries.  They never played each other, though, because Player A always avoided it: a loss would have crushed his illusion of greatness.  Player B, on the other hand, was a coach’s dream.  If I told him about a better way to handle a game position, he would set up the board, and play that situation against me over and over, until the lesson was internalized.  He had no problem losing.  He didn’t lose often, but sometimes he did so to test an idea, try out a different plan, or teach himself a new technique.  His strength increased rapidly, and by the end of one season he had clearly surpassed Player A.  The difference was this:  talent, to Player B, was something to be acquired by the steady investment of one’s efforts and energy, not a gift, to be sheltered and displayed like a precious jewel.
There is a lesson here for teachers and parents.  When children succeed, we should praise them — perhaps not so much for their talent, but for their dedication and persistence.  When they fail, we encourage them to try harder next time, and discourage the self-defeating attitude that they’re “no good at it.”   Recognize them less for what they are, and more for what they have done.  With our words, our actions, and our example, we thereby cultivate the mindset of a Player B.

Teacher Collective Bargaining Hurts Students

I came across an interesting study performed by Michael F. Lovenhiem and Alexander Willen, both of Cornell University.  Titled “The Long-Run Effects of Teacher Collective Bargaining,” this study analyses the effects of teacher collective bargaining laws on life outcomes of the students.  More specifically, the study examines how the people educated in a state were affected after a state had enacted a duty-to-bargain law for public school teachers. 
A link to the original study appears here (along with related studies on the societal effects of public sector unions): 
An article based on that study appears in EducationNext, a website sponsored by the Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.  Here is a link to it:
The results are startling.  According to the article, “students who spent all 12 years of grade school in a state with a duty-to-bargain law earned an average of $795 less per year and worked half an hour less per week as adults than students who were not exposed to collective-bargaining laws. They are 0.9 percentage points less likely to be employed and 0.8 percentage points less likely to be in the labor force. And those with jobs tend to work in lower-skilled occupations.”  The study further notes that “teacher collective bargaining reduces [their students’ total] earnings by $199.6 billion in the US annually… [and] leads to sizable reductions in measured cognitive and non-cognitive skills among young adults.”

The authors report that “Collective-bargaining laws strengthen teachers unions and give them greater influence over how school districts allocate their resources. A typical collective-bargaining agreement addresses a remarkably broad range of items: unions negotiate over salary schedules and benefits; hiring, evaluation, and firing policies; and rules detailing work and teaching hours, class assignments, class sizes, and nonteaching duties. By increasing union membership, collective-bargaining laws also heighten the influence of teachers unions in education politics at the state level….  Critics of teacher unionization argue that collective bargaining in public education has reduced school quality by shifting resources toward teachers and away from other educational inputs and by making it more difficult to fire low-performing teachers. Stronger unions may also have made it  harder for states to adopt policies aimed at improving school quality through enhanced accountability or expanded school choice…. Our evidence points to the conclusion that collective bargaining in public education has been a bad deal for American students.”

Fortunately, in Virginia, public sector employees are prohibited from collective bargaining, absent specific statutory authorization.  This study affirms that this is the right policy for our state.

Federal Regulatory Changes to Affect K-12

An article in the Washington Examiner by Emily Jashinsky looks at reforms being considered by the administration that will affect K-12 and higher ed. Titled “Betsy DeVos Looks to Curb Federal ‘Overreach’ in Education,” the article begins
The Department of Education has its sights set on regulatory reform in 2018. Led by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who often speaks out against what she calls a “one-size-fits-all” approach to education, the department is focused on reviewing rules and requirements issued by previous administrations, seeking to curb what she says is federal overreach.
This effort will include continued review of Title IX guidelines to colleges and universities on the handling of sexual assault cases.  The previous guidelines, which have given rise to concerns for the due process rights of the accused, were rescinded in September.
The … department’s broader goal [is] “reducing overreach the department has engaged in in the past,” in an effort to “[free] up educators and administrators and institutions to actually serve students rather than be more worried about compliance.”
Indeed, teachers and administrators currently expend a great deal of time and energy on data collection and paperwork related to regulatory compliance, and this is a factor affecting morale at schools.
The article continues
On the K-12 level, a possible two-year delay of the “significant disproportionality” rule will likely be opened up for comment as well. The rule is a requirement that states note “when districts … discipline children from any racial or ethnic group at markedly higher rates than their peers.”
With disciplinary reforms already being of great current interest, critical examination of this rule might light the way toward better solutions overall.
Other possible changes include a school choice program (“vouchers”), and expansion of 529 savings plans to include K-12 expenses.
Original article here: http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/betsy-devos-looks-to-curb-federal-overreach-in-education/article/2644402

Carolyn Weems Receives Award

Ms. Carolyn Weems, VB School Board Member, has been awarded the 2017 Director’s Community Leadership Award by the Norfolk Field Office of the FBI.   This award recognizes her many decades of leadership and volunteer work dedicated to drug abuse awareness and prevention.

Let us give our thanks to Ms. Weems for her ongoing efforts to combat the opioid crisis.  We also want to recognize Dr Amy Cashwell of VBCPS for working with Ms. Weems to implement drug awareness curriculum in VB Public Schools to educate about the dangers of prescription drugs.

See the FBI announcement here:


Fraudulent Diplomas


A recent article by Kate McGee of WAMU, working with the education team at National Public Radio, highlights the perverse incentives hanging over school administrators, and the disastrous outcomes that may result.  Titled “What Really Happened at the School Where Every Graduate Got into College,” this article uncovers fraud at a breathtaking scale that should alarm all parents.
The school in question is Ballou High School.  It is located in one of the most poverty-stricken areas of Washington, D.C., and has long struggled with low graduation rates.
According to the article,  “An investigation by WAMU and NPR has found that Ballou High School’s administration graduated dozens of students despite high rates of unexcused absences. We reviewed hundreds of pages of Ballou’s attendance records, class rosters and emails after a district employee shared the private documents. Half of the graduates missed more than three months of school last year, unexcused. One in five students was absent more than present — missing more than 90 days of school.”  
The article continues, “An internal email obtained by WAMU and NPR from April shows two months before graduation, only 57 students were on track to graduate, with dozens of students missing graduation or community service requirements or failing classes needed to graduate. In June, 164 students received diplomas.”  According to one teacher, “It was smoke and mirrors.”  As another teacher explains, from the student’s point of view, “If I knew I could skip the whole semester and still pass, why would I try?”  Even the grading policy is in on the ruse, with an artificial floor of 50% credit for work that is never done.
Teachers report feeling intense pressure from the administration to pass students despite chronic absenteeism.  They sometimes receive calls from school officials telling them to change a grade without proper justification.  Resistance to these dishonest and coercive tactics could be met by poor teaching evaluations, and perhaps dismissal.  This is deeply unfair to teachers, especially those who are committed to upholding high academic standards, as well as the ideals of honesty, integrity and character.  Worst of all, the students are grievously cheated by this scandal.  They receive diplomas without genuine academic achievement; they go on to college and enter the work force without being adequately prepared.  Many return to the community as adults and perpetuate the cycle of poverty.
Why would the school administration so callously throw its students and teachers under the bus?  Simple: by artificially boosting graduation rates, school officials (and some teachers) receive financial bonuses of up to $30,000.  What a disgrace!
Read the whole article here: 


The Secret to Success

There’s an old joke.   Driving around New York City, a tourist rolls down his window and asks a passerby “Excuse me, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?”  The answer: “Practice, practice, practice!”

Indeed, the path to excellence is well known among musicians.  They are aware that learning to play the violin, for instance, doesn’t result from attending lectures or reading textbooks on the theory of violin-playing.  They know that musical skill comes only from practice.  Twenty minutes a day, an hour a day, or four hours a day — depending on their goals.  Lessons do help, and theory can be taught in a classroom setting, but learning to perform comes only from performance itself.  To be more precise, the acquisition of skill derives from the cycle of performance; critical feedback; and diligent, deliberate and conscientious practice.
Athletes, too, have always known the way forward.  A football coach can provide wise counsel, and videotaped plays can furnish helpful analysis, but you cannot develop the actual abilities and talents without putting on your helmet and pads, going out to the field, and dirtying your uniform.  Like the musicians, the jocks know that practice is necessarily a daily thing (excluding days rest and recovery, of course).  Similarly, no one prepares for a marathon by running a practice marathon the day before.  Rather, it takes many months of steady, intensive training.
The same principles for skill acquisition apply to every field of human endeavor.  This is particularly true of academic subjects, such as math or expository writing.  To learn math, you must do math.  Going to lectures and seeing math done at the board does help — but not much more than listening to recordings of Isaac Stern will help the aspiring violinist.  That’s where homework comes in:  homework provides the opportunity to be challenged, to perform, to receive constructive feedback, and to take corrective action.  It should be done on a steady (almost daily) basis, in order to maintain the level of intensive engagement necessary for the associated neurological adaptations to take root.  As with the marathoner, you cannot properly prepare for a test by cramming the night before.
So the secret to success is not such a secret after all.  We’ve known it all along: practice, practice, practice.

Cause and Effect

In December 2015, the School Superintendent’s Association published a column on school discipline, touting reforms intended to reduce suspensions and expulsions by adopting alternative approaches.

“Suspensions and expulsions often disengage and disconnect students from school, feed students into the juvenile system and criminalize children at increasingly younger ages: instigating a Cradle to Prison Pipeline. Harsh and punitive policies, including zero tolerance and the overuse of suspension and expulsion, can devastate the lives of children. We are committed to educational equity and reform to ensure the highest quality education for all students.

“In 2013 and 2014, AASA and The Children’s Defense Fund entered a partnership to explore alternative school district practices and system wide solutions for school leaders to bring back to their districts. This initiative was funded by The Atlantic Philanthropies….”

One of the school districts supported by this initiative has been Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Fast forward to November 21, 2017, and we learn from a New York Post article that “Dozens of teachers terrorized by out-of-control students flee school district.”

“A group of Pennsylvania teachers is sharing horror stories of getting beaten up by pupils as young as 6 — and begging their school district for help.  

“I have been kicked, punched, hit, scratched. I’ve had a student physically restraining me in front of my other students… And many of the personal things that I have bought for my classroom have been broken or destroyed,” first-grade teacher Amanda Sheaffer told the Harrisburg school board at its meeting Monday, according to the news website PennLive.  

“Many minutes are spent each day dealing with violence that is happening in the classroom,” Sheaffer said. “How am I supposed to have a safe, nurturing learning environment when this behavior happens?”  

“Sheaffer was one of about a half-dozen elementary school teachers and several parents who implored the board for help in dealing with increasingly violent and troubled kids.

“We aren’t complaining. We are here begging for help so that we can help those students,” said Harrisburg Education Association president Jody Barksdale.

“Barksdale represents some of the teachers asking for help and brought similar concerns to the board in January, according to PennLive.

“At least 45 teachers resigned between July and October because of kids terrorizing their classrooms, Barksdale claimed, according to Fox 43.

“Teachers and students are being hit, kicked, slapped, scratched, cussed at … and observing other students flip over tables, desks and chairs,” she said. “Teachers have had to take the rest of their class into the hallway to protect them during these outbursts. Not much has changed since last January.”

Indeed, these include schools (Harrisburg, PA) in which the disciplinary reforms had been instituted only a few years ago.  It is clear that the students have learned something:  they have learned that there are no meaningful consequences for misbehavior at these schools.  It is not yet clear whether the administrators have learned anything.

Be The Twenty

My son was complaining the other day about a group project for school in which he ended up doing most of the work himself, and the other members of his team contributed either very little or nothing at all.  I explained that he had collided with the “Eighty-Twenty Rule.”  This is a rule of thumb that seems to apply to any kind of group project – for school, for work, or for other organizations:
   Eighty percent of the work is done by twenty percent of the people.
The rule is actually a mild misapplication of a mathematical law known as the Pareto Principle (go ahead, google it), which does govern many phenomena in nature and in human affairs.  As an observation about people, I think it has some validity.
My advice to my son was this:  Be the Twenty.  Cultivate those habits of mind that characterize the twenty percent.  Conscientiousness, attention to detail, willingness to work long hours.  Getting credit for your efforts is nice, but excellence is your goal.  When a task needs to be performed, you’ll answer the call, roll up your sleeves, and get it done, perhaps inspiring others by your quiet example.  In times of urgent need, those around you will know who they can rely on, who they can always turn to for capable leadership.
Be the Twenty.  Because you now know about the Eighty-Twenty Rule, you’ll expect it to happen, and it will not surprise you.  Therefore you will not let it upset you if sometimes you carry more of the burden on your shoulders.  Instead – revel in it; seize upon the opportunity to serve and to shine.  By accepting that there will always be Eighties, you will also then waste no energy feeling resentment or bitterness toward them; no personal relations will be tainted by such negativity.  You will need to grow a big heart in order to accomplish this.
Be the Twenty.  Those in the twenty percent will go on to thrive and prosper in college, in military service, in the workplace, and in all things.  You will become the leaders, innovators, and visionaries for the next generation.  And when you are my age, you will be able to look back with satisfaction at a life well led.


Unlearning Unreason

Here are excerpts of an article in the New Boston Post by Adam J. MacLeod, who is an Associate Professor of Law at Faulkner University.  It addresses reversing certain habits of thought that could stand in the way of future success.

I teach in a law school. For several years now my students have been mostly Millennials. Contrary to stereotype, I have found that the vast majority of them want to learn. But true to stereotype, I increasingly find that most of them cannot think, don’t know very much, and are enslaved to their appetites and feelings. Their minds are held hostage in a prison fashioned by elite culture and their undergraduate professors.

They cannot learn until their minds are freed from that prison. This year …, I found my students especially impervious to the ancient wisdom of foundational texts, such as Plato’s Crito and the Code of Hammurabi. Many of them were quick to dismiss unfamiliar ideas as “classist” and “racist,” and thus unable to engage with those ideas on the merits. So, a couple of weeks into the semester, I decided to lay down some ground rules…

Here is the speech I gave them.


Before I can teach you how to reason, I must first teach you how to rid yourself of unreason. For many of you have not yet been educated. You have been dis-educated. To put it bluntly, you have been indoctrinated. Before you learn how to think you must first learn how to stop unthinking.

Reasoning requires you to understand truth claims, even truth claims that you think are false or bad or just icky. … And reasoning requires coherence and logic. Most of you have been taught to embrace incoherence and illogic. You have learned to associate truth with your subjective feelings, which are neither true nor false but only yours, and which are constantly changeful.

…[Y]ou should not bother to tell us how you *feel* about a topic. Tell us what you *think* about it. If you can’t think yet, that’s O.K. Tell us what Aristotle thinks, or Hammurabi thinks, or H.L.A. Hart thinks. Borrow opinions from those whose opinions are worth considering. As Aristotle teaches us in the reading for today, men and women who are enslaved to the passions, who never rise above their animal natures by practicing the virtues, do not have worthwhile opinions. Only the person who exercises practical reason and attains practical wisdom knows how first to live his life, then to order his household, and finally, when he is sufficiently wise and mature, to venture opinions on how to bring order to the political community.

Accordingly, one of Professor MacLeod’s ground rules for his course is

If you ever begin a statement with the words “I feel,” before continuing you must cluck like a chicken or make some other suitable animal sound.

MacLeod continues:

…Disagreement is not expressing one’s disapproval of something or expressing that something makes you feel bad or icky. To really disagree with someone’s idea or opinion, you must first understand that idea or opinion. When Socrates tells you that a good life is better than a life in exile you can neither agree nor disagree with that claim without first understanding what he means by “good life” and why he thinks running away from Athens would be unjust. Similarly, if someone expresses a view about abortion, and you do not first take the time to understand what the view is and why the person thinks the view is true, then you cannot disagree with the view, much less reason with that person. You might take offense. You might feel bad that someone holds that view. But you are not reasoning unless you are engaging the merits of the argument, just as Socrates engaged with Crito’s argument that he should flee from Athens.

Read the whole article here: http://tinyurl.com/yao5xyhe. Perhaps there are lessons for all of us.

Cognitive Science of Teaching and Learning


I recently read a book by Daniel Willingham titled Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom.  The title itself is misleading — the book says very little about why students don’t like school — but the subtitle nails it. This volume surveys the breakthroughs in cognitive science from the past 2 or 3 decades, and identifies the implications of these results to teaching and learning.
There are insights, for example, into the neurological process of building memories, and ways to enhance this process in the classroom.  These involve the role of repetition, story-building, and tying in emotions in some way. It can also be said that memory follows cognition; rather than memorize a formula by rote, a student is more likely to retain it after applying it in a series of practice problems.  The learning experience is enhanced further if the subject matter could be engaged at a deeper emotional level.
There are perhaps some surprises in these findings.  Studying with the music on, for example, is detrimental to learning, contrary to the often held view that it promotes concentration.  In fact, any kind of multi-tasking has a similarly adverse effect.  This tells us that the TV shouldn’t be on when doing homework, even with the sound turned off.  Even having one’s cell phone nearby interferes with the learning process to a small degree.
There is a great deal of information in this book that could be used by teachers (and sufficiently mature students) to make the most of learning opportunities.