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Category — Teaching and Learning

College Athletics – One Shining Light Amid the Darkness

I have noted in the past that athletics can serve as a great teaching tool for young people as it provides lessons that cannot always be learned in the classroom. Amidst the competition and physical demands, great coaches can teach youngsters about what it means to collectively strive for a team goal while sacrificing individual gain and even more importantly, how to dust oneself off when he or she falls short of the expectations they have placed on themselves.

But the sorry state of Division I college sports, from the poor graduation rates of athletes to the salaries being paid coaches who have a record of NCAA rules violations to game forfeitures in the name of money, has become nothing short of mind boggling.

A focus on money has led many institutions down a path that teaches nothing about the essence of athletics. Instead, at too may institutions, Division I athletics is about winning at whatever cost, a mindset that has college athletics selling its soul to the highest bidders.

One Shining Light

But at some schools there are still coaches who understand that there is more to athletics that winning and losing. Indeed, there are many individuals who no doubt understand that their leadership can help their young athletes become better people in addition to making them better players.

Holding a swabAndy Talley, the head football coach at Villanova in Philadelphia represents just such a man. Talley was reportedly so affected by a radio show nearly 20 years ago that promoted the dire need for donors of all types that he instituted a bone marrow donor program on campus.

As for his football players, Talley makes participation as a donor a part of his greater football program. His efforts to get a program started has led to nearly 20,000 potential donors who have been tested and entered into the national registry.

Those efforts have led to at least three of his tested players over that period becoming donor matches for someone in need. It is the story of one such donor this past year that demonstrates the difference a coach can make in the life of an individual.

Star Athlete

One of Talley’s most talented athletes, Matt Szczur got his cheek swabbed when he was a freshman as part of the coach’s marrow donor program. Szczur was not a highly recruited football player but the young man had demonstrated incredible talent on the baseball diamond – so much talent that he was drafted out of high school by the Los Angeles Dodgers.

But instead of the world of professional baseball Szczur opted to attend college where he wanted to play football and baseball. He was such a strong athlete that he worked his way onto the football field as a freshman before settling into his main sport, baseball.

The hard-working athlete soon became a star, a legitimate two-sport professional prospect, for the Wildcats programs. But as rare as two sport athletes are, Szczur was actually rarer still.

Because he learned that despite there being just a 1 in 80,000 chance he’d be a match for a stricken patient he was in fact a match for an infant girl. And once he found out, his response was truly something special.

“As soon as I heard that, I was so excited,” Szczur reportedly told Dan Gelston at the Associated Press. “I was so pumped. My roommate was like, ‘What’s wrong with you? It’s like you were drafted or something.'”

Initially, the donation was to take place during the team’s postseason football run. Both Talley and Szczur deemed the chance to help save the life of a little girl to be more important than winning a football title.

iStock_000013986758XSmallBut as luck would have it, medical scheduling changes allowed him to play and help his team to the national title. For his part, he was voted the Most Outstanding Player in the FCS National Championship game.

Instead, the procedure was moved to May where he ended up missing 10 games out of the Wildcats’ baseball season. Those missed games came right before the Major League Baseball draft.

Confidentially rules prevent Szczur from knowing who he specifically donated his stem cells to. He does know the little girl is between 1 and 2 years old and that a year from now he can be told who she is. At that time he could also be given contact info so as to be able to get in touch with her.

There is much more to the Szczur story including his being drafted again, this time by the Chicago Cubs, the bonus he received and his playing minor league baseball. His first major purchase with his baseball money was a necklace for a childhood friend who has also been battling leukemia, a young lady who has been in remission for five years.

He purchased the chain with a dove (representing faith) on it at Tiffany’s. And if he should have the chance to meet one very special youngster next May, it is his goal to deliver a similar gift to her as well.

A Team and a Coach Worth Rooting For

This incredible young man has since returned to Villanova for the upcoming football season (NCAA rules allow athletes to play professionally in one sport while remaining an amateur in another). He, of course, will be playing for Andy Talley, a man who understands what it means to be an educator and leader.

It needs to be said that for his part the coach was presented the Person of the Decade Award by the Temple Bone Marrow Transplant Program of Temple University Hospital last spring.

And after winning one championship last year, his team is ranked number one for the upcoming season in a number of FCS preseason polls.

Both are truly more significant forms of recognition than I could ever offer. But one thing is for sure, this native Mainer has found one college program he can root for come fall.

August 26, 2010   No Comments

The Passing of John Wooden – Teacher, Coach and Role Model

He was legendary for his attention to detail, from his meticulous practice plans to taking the time to teach players how to put on their socks so as to prevent blisters. His enormous success led some to refer to him as the Wizard of Westwood, a reference he reportedly hated.

But to most, John Wooden was respectfully known as coach. Most importantly, for all the educators and coaches of amateur athletics the man was an example of what we should all strive to be.

The Coach and Player

A talented basketball player in his own right, Wooden was a three-time college All-American guard. He earned the nickname the “Rubber Man’’ because of how quickly he would bounce back up from the floor.

But he is most well known for coaching accomplishments, achievements that defy description. Coach Wooden’s UCLA Bruins made 12 Final Four appearances and won 10 NCAA championships, including seven in a row from 1967 to 1973. All three of these accomplishments represent all-time NCAA records.


His 1971-72 team posted an average margin of victory of 30.3 points, also an all time NCAA record. He posted a career winning percentage of .813 and his teams went unbeaten four times. From 1971 to 1974, UCLA would win 88 games in succession.

Prior to his success on the national stage, he transformed the Bruins from an unknown to a conference power, winning five conference titles and taking UCLA to their first Final Four in 1962 where the team lost in the semifinals to Cincinnati, the eventual champion.

Amazingly, Coach Wooden was successful with teams with all types of players – those that featured a dominant post-player as well as guard-oriented teams that were devoid of size. He didn’t recruit players to fit a basketball style; instead he recruited individuals that he felt would fit into his belief of how the game should be played: a focus on “conditioning, fundamentals, and working together as a team.’’

He would be the first man to be named to the Naismith Hall of Fame as both player and coach. Only two other individuals in the history of basketball have matched that accomplishment.

John Wooden, Teacher

The former high school English teacher was actually best known by his players, not for the titles he helped them win, but for the life lessons he provided them. According to legend, Coach Wooden carried with him, at all times, a handwritten copy of his father’s credo:

“Be true to yourself. Make each day a masterpiece. Drink deeply from good books. Make friendship a fine art. Build a shelter against a rainy day.’’

Deeply religious, Wooden was known for being a man of principle and those principles never varied, no matter how important or talented the player. When one of his most gifted and free-spirited charges, Bill Walton, balked at getting his hair cut, Coach Wooden reportedly acknowledged his respect and even admiration for a young man who wanted to live by his own personal creed before stating:

“We’re going to miss you, Bill.”

For those in the education business, it is important to note that he insisted that there were four laws of learning: explanation, demonstration, imitation, and repetition. And for success in the most trying of times, i.e., for his basketball teams on the national stage, he insisted that “the goal is to create a correct habit that can be produced instinctively under great pressure.”

But as with most great teachers, his lessons were given by his actions. Bob Ryan, the great sportswriter for the Boston Globe referred to Wooden as “a 19th century man who somehow thrived in an otherwise alien culture.” It seems that when Wooden’s wife Nell Riley passed away on March 21, 1985, he continued to honor a lifelong commitment to his partner. On the 21st of each month, Coach Wooden would pay a visit to his wife’s grave and then sit down to write a love letter.

Not without flaws, Coach Wooden was known to tell a fib or two. As Ryan also wrote, the UCLA great always stood by those who had managed to handle his demands on the court. Apparently Wooden once expounded to Ryan on how much he had enjoyed coaching Sidney Wicks, a man pro coaches deemed uncoachable.

Though deeply religious, it is interesting to note that when his body failed him completely, he took a page from Scott Nearing and made the extraordinarily difficult conscious decision to end his own life. The general consensus is that when Wooden’s body had completely betrayed him he checked himself into a facility where he refused to eat and awaited the end.

“Death with dignity,” wrote Ryan, “is what he deserved and death with dignity is what he got.”

The Man and Father

A quiet, personally-reserved man, Coach Wooden was never one to sell the substance for the shadow. He hated flashiness both on and off the court.

He never swore at his players yet many would attest that he put enough venom into ‘Goodness gracious sakes alive!’ that he could make a Marine drill sergeant proud.

Basketball on the HardwoodIn a day and age when most men smoked Wooden did so himself though he would quit each season to ensure he was a proper role model to his players.

And his children, they had this to say of the man:

“We will miss him more than words can express,’’ his son, James, and daughter, Nancy Muehlhausen, said in a statement. “He has been, and always will be, the guiding light for our family. The love, guidance, and support he has given us will never be forgotten. Our peace of mind at this time is knowing that he has gone to be with our mother, whom he has continued to love and cherish.’’

Perhaps surprisingly, there are those who think he was a man that could not match his success in today’s world of college athletics. According to The New York Times::

“A dynasty like Wooden’s would be almost impossible now, because the best players seldom spend more than a year or two in college before turning professional. No N.C.A.A. men’s basketball coach has won more than four championships since Wooden retired.”

I beg to differ. Wooden was a teacher first and a coach second. He would recruit young men who understood the word commitment. And as a man who understood how to motivate and how to lead, I think he would still be the man everyone would be chasing.

As Mark Kriegel at FoxSports notes:

“This may be a cynical age, but no more distrustful than the ’60s and ’70s. Cities were burning. Many a campus found itself under siege. It was black against white, and young against old, (defined as anyone over 30).”

“…. it was the best work done by any American coach, in any sport.
The championship streak is wondrous enough. But the fact that those years — 1967 to 1974 — coincide with the most famously tumultuous stretch in youth culture, elevates the achievement. It wasn’t a sporting accomplishment so much as a societal one.”

In a day and age when we spend as much time talking about ineligible players and team’s being sanctioned for breaking rules, Wooden would represent a return to the spirit of college athletics, where winning was secondary to developing character.

In life and in death the man was ever the teacher and coach. The great ones are great for a reason, they understand and function at a different level.

Such was the case with the wondrous husband and father as well as the greatest teacher and coach ever to walk the planet.

June 6, 2010   2 Comments

For Greater Student Achievement Teach Students to be Leaders

Greater achievement comes when we focus on students, not on the curricula itself.

Stephen Covey
, the internationally respected leadership authority, is best known for his phenomenal book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” But the co-founder and vice-chairman of the FranklinCovey Co. has also been recognized as one of Time magazine’s twenty-five most influential Americans based on his impact in a variety of fields including education.

coveyCovey’s seven principles are universal, with the first two leading the way for any walk of life: a) take personal responsibility and initiative and b) be clear about what’s important to you and setting goals. In this writer’s eyes, these two elements represent the foundation for being successful, whether it is training for the world of pro sports or inspiring a classroom full of students.

Some educators may be surprised to learn that these seven habits once served to revitalize A.B. Combs Elementary School in Raleigh, North Carolina. Principal Muriel Summers transformed the poor performing school with low teacher morale into a model program by applying Covey’s seven principles to the school setting.

Implementing an inside-out approach, i.e. having the teachers and administrators learning, living and modeling the principles themselves first, Summers led a process that resulted in the principles of effectiveness being woven into every subject — math, science, social studies, art, etc.

Encouraged to Be Leaders

Dubbed The Leader in Me process, the seven habits educational approach has now been adopted in over 200 schools around the world. While every school is unique in its own way, these 200 all share a common mission statement: “Developing Leaders, One Child at a Time.”

book-preorderCovey notes that many folks question the fundamental notion that every child can be a leader. But in the ‘Knowledge Worker Age,’ he insists that leadership is a life choice as opposed to a position that is assigned to people.

The Leader in Me process is not about the small number of people who will end up in significant leadership positions. Instead, it is about leading one’s life and being a leader among one’s friends and one’s family.

Covey considers this emphasis on leadership as the ‘highest of all the arts,’ and that by communicating to people their worth and potential they ultimately come to see it in themselves.

A Program Worth Considering

Perhaps it is Covey’s humility that makes his work so enticing. The man behind the seven principles does not take credit for what he calls the ‘set of universal, timeless, self-evident principles common to every enduring, prospering society, organization, or family.’ Instead, according to his own assessment, he ‘simply organized, sequenced and articulated them.’

But for this educator, it is the fact that Covey reverts to the very fundamentals of education in the Leader in Me program that is significant. The focus on students and not curricula, on character and not subjects, and most importantly, ‘doing the right thing even when no one is looking’ is one every school should take notice of.

Indeed, education has been and will always be about relationships. Covey’s focus on developing leadership features this fundamental prominently.

Educators interested in greater student achievement would do well to review the principles featured in The Leader in Me. Though a complete school approach would no doubt produce greater impact, teacher’s who implement these principles into their classroom will find students taking greater ownership in their learning.

And such ownership is at the heart of greater levels of student achievement.

May 31, 2010   No Comments

The 21st Century Classroom – Alfie Kohn

As a former administrator, I have had the good fortune to visit a significant number of classrooms over the years. Because I have been witness to bad or indifferent teaching, there has always been a special feeling of excitement during those times I was able to witness the talents of a true professional at work in the classroom. It also has encouraged me to be reflective on my years in the classroom.

Having begun teaching in the 1970’s at the high school level, my approach in the early years was very traditional. My classroom would have been best described as teacher-centered and my organizational skills combined with my ability to relate to students created a room that earned me high marks from my administrators.

In the early nineties though, it became increasingly clear that my methods were growing less popular with students. In addition, I found myself less and less successful on the most important element, student achievement. My classroom was well-managed and discipline issues seldom arose, but my students seemed to be losing interest in the subjects that I taught.

As I slowly tried to adjust, most of my colleagues initially insisted that I was wrong to make changes. Instead, they were firm in their resolve that the students needed to be held accountable. Most importantly, they insisted that if these students were one day to move on to post-secondary levels of education, they would find that college professors seldom featured anything but the teacher-centered model.

It was in the September 1996 issue of Educational Leadership that Alfie Kohn turned my thoughts full circle. It was at that time he released his version of “What to Look for in a Classroom.”

His summary was truly transformational for me and it has stood the test of time as the definitive model for those classrooms where teachers excel. Frequently appearing in a simple chart format, “What to Look for in a Classroom” features two contrasting columns: the ‘Good Signs’ versus ‘Possible Reasons to Worry.’

Parents and traditional educators will find a disturbing trend – to this day, most of the practices employed at the high school level fall into Kohn’s reasons to worry category.

The Traditional/Negative Approach

Teacher In ClassroomUnder the possible reasons to worry, Kohn took exception to longstanding educational traditions. In simplest terms, Kohn insisted it was time to destroy the teacher-centered, control model that focused on classroom management and replace it with a version that is often equated with what one sees in elementary school, particularly at the youngest levels.

For example, under his possible reasons to worry, he offered the following:

  • Chairs all facing forward and worse yet, desks in rows.
  • Packaged instructional materials orderly and prominently displayed.
  • Classroom visuals featuring commercial posters, lists of rules, sticker and star charts or samples of flawless student work posted only from the best youngsters.
  • Periods of silence interrupted by only the voice of the teacher.
  • An in-control, authoritative and highly visible teacher typically front and center.
  • Students waiting quietly for the next set of teacher-initiated activities, responding to teacher-directed questioning.
  • All students focused on the same activity working on their individual skills.

The Modern/Positive Approach

studentIn the Kohn classroom, the teacher is no longer the focus – instead everything centers upon the students and what it is they need to learn:

  • Multiple activity centers featuring various classroom structures including open spaces and large tables for group work.
  • Room overflowing with a variety of materials, apparatus and supplies.
  • Displays of student projects demonstrating student collaboration or personal memos initiated by the students.
  • A buzz or low-level hum of activity featuring students exchanging ideas.
  • A warm, respectful teacher mingling with students.
  • Students eager and excited about learning as they actively question one another.
  • Multiple activities taking place simultaneously with students working in pairs or groups.

Elementary vs. Secondary

As noted earlier, Kohn’s approach was far more consistent with that employed by elementary school teachers. It also features a significant change in focus for those administrators observing a classroom – instead of an emphasis on what it is that the teacher is doing, the shift is to assessing what it is that the students are doing. Most importantly, it is a shift from a quiet, well-managed classroom to one that is lively and features an emphasis on student learning.

It is interesting to note that for many children, middle school and high school becomes the place where school is no longer enjoyable. It is, of course, at that time that students traditionally have been subject to a shift from student-centered classroom to a teacher-centered, content-driven academic approach.

The result is that school, instead of being a place where students look forward to going each day because it features an exciting atmosphere where learning new things is enjoyable, becomes a chore at best, a problem at worst. At the very age when students most resist compliance and teacher-centered approaches, too many teachers, and, by default, too many schools insist on employing such a format.

Because of the sophistication needed educationally, there is no doubt that 21st century classrooms demand a shift from the ‘sage on the stage’ to the ‘guide on the side’ approach. That move is a requirement to produce the type of student that will excel in the creative, technologically-rich world we face.

But while technology demands such a shift and the student of the 21st century needs such a classroom to learn the skills needed for future employment, it is now clear that the Kohn approach is one that should have been employed long ago for a different reason.

It is, and in fact has always been, a better way for teachers to do business. And it has always been the model I associate with the true professionals I have had the good fortune to observe.

May 3, 2010   9 Comments

Stand and Deliver – Passing of Jaime Escalante

Jaime Escalante, the teacher whose amazing story became the movie ‘Stand and Deliver,’ succumbs to cancer at 79.

Being a teacher, no story ever resonated more strongly than that of the inspirational Jaime Escalante.


“Can we talk about sex?”

No doubt my feelings were due in great part to the fact that I too once taught the great subject of calculus. That I too have faced an uninspired group of students desperately wondering how I might reach them.

But my odds were infinitesimal compared to the ones he faced, making his tale an extraordinary story. The passion and ability to inspire some of the most underprivileged students in East L.A. to achieve at a level they could never have imagined possible is and was a story I have never grown tired of.

The movie is a must see for anyone who aspires to teach – heck it ought to be requirement that every high school teacher view the flick a day or two before the start of every school year.

Because this inspirational tale reminds us that it is amazing what one dedicated teacher can do, what a difference one educator can make in the lives of the individuals who arrive in his or her classroom.

As teachers, we all have an amazing opportunity, a chance, every single day, to stand and deliver. And if we do so with unbridled passion, then we can be the ones to truly “pay it forward.”

Jaime Escalante, a real American hero.

March 31, 2010   No Comments

Online, Higher Education Models – Enter the New York Times

We have read on many occasions of new higher education models. One blogger, John Robb, noted that one catalyst could be the economic downturn we have experienced.

Most certainly, a number of folks have expressed dismay that in tough economic times, one constant remains – next year’s university fees and tuition costs will be significantly more than what students had to shell out this year. While most tend to chastise higher education, this development no doubt has caught the attention of entrepreneurs who see education as a source of revenue.

A More Profitable New York Times?

iStock_000009137974XSmallHowever, we may not have been paying enough attention to this combination of factors. We would have never guessed the latest educational entry might come from an industry that is floundering, the newspaper business, and from one of the most venerable of news outlets, the New York Times.

But as media conglomerates search for new revenue models that could help them to return to financial stability, they are apparently leaving no stone unturned. But most people are focusing on the fact that the NY Times is once again considering charging online readers access to its web site.

It seems that Times leadership is about to reintroduce a paywall format whereby readers without a subscription will get a limited number of free peeks at the site per month. Critics insist that it will not enhance that much-needed revenue stream in the long run.

Since bloggers provide enormous referrals when citing articles, even readership at the Times is greatly enhanced by online linking. If a paywall is put in place, those bloggers would no longer be able to refer readers to a specific article with the certainty that those readers would be able to access that story when they click.

Fewer readers in the long run means fewer dollars as well.

But in an even more interesting move, in addition to charging for story access, it now appears that the Times is moving into the field of education. According to the Guardian, beginning this spring the Times “will start awarding certificates in conjunction with several universities to students who pay to take its online courses.”

The Guardian notes the step serves two critical purposes: earning the Times some extra bucks as it works to extend the company’s brand name.

Not Entirely New

It was two years ago the paper launched the New York Times Knowledge Network. Offering online courses with editors and journalists, the program initially involved the offering of non-credit courses that provided continuing education expertise for journalists.

istock_000007229384xsmall-300x299The difference, though shades of gray must be mentioned here, is that it now appears the model is designed to produce a stream of income. The latest model involves far more than non-credit, continuing education classes; instead the Times will partner with other universities to offer courses that grant credits and can be used for certificate programs.

Felice Nudelman, director of education for the Times, recently explained the concept to Inside High Ed. “It is, for many institutions, a profit center,” she acknowledged.

Teaming up with Ball State University and Rosemont College, courses will range from $235 for a six-week video storytelling course ($199 if no credit is to be awarded) to a six-course certification in entrepreneurship at $1,950 per course. The video course is one of nine courses students must complete to obtain a joint certificate in “emerging media journalism” from the Times and Ball State.

Other options include immigration law courses taken in conjunction with the City University of New York and separate 45-week programs in paralegal studies and nurse paralegal studies from Thomas Edison State College.

The format has the Times and the specific universities sharing course revenues. The colleges will provide the professors for each course while the Times will offer access to news archives back to 1851, subject-specific content modules designed by the paper, and newsroom specialists for guest lectures.

Future of Education

As a new education model, the concept could well be the harbinger of things to come. The Times certainly offers an incredible library of material to say nothing of employing enormous reporting expertise.

One could certainly see students flocking to courses that might feature not only a competent professor, but the possibility of interacting with the likes of a Thomas Friedman, Nicholas Kristof, or Paul Krugman (provided Princeton might allow) would no doubt be incredibly marketable.

And as Nudleman told InsideHigherEducation, “If you look at the content of the pages of New York Times,” she is not stretching the truth too much when she asserts “we probably have as much depth and breadth as a good liberal arts curriculum.”

Robb was right, the current economics constitutes a chance for new models and it appears the NY Times is ready to deliver a very unique option. The question, ultimately, is will this help return an esteemed brand to financial stability.

January 19, 2010   No Comments

Gregg Breinberg – The Teacher Behind the PS22 Internet Sensation

It seems only fitting that a week after The Atlantic asked the question, What Makes a Great Teacher? we are able to offer our readers a Q & A with Gregg Breinberg, the educator behind PS22’s rise to internet stardom.

His fifth graders have sung for the president. They have wowed Tori Amos and Beyonce. They have performed everything from Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” to the hip hop anthem, “Run this Town” by Jay-Z, Rihanna & Kanye West. A glance at their web site reveals a never-ending list of stars smitten by these wondrous young singers.

greggbwObserving him working with students, reporters have described Gregg as “handsome, erratic and funny” and that “he looks and acts like an overgrown fifth-grader himself.” One of his students told NBC news, “Mr. B, he’s a handful – he teaches us but we teach him – he’s not just a regular teacher – he is un-ordinary.”

Energetic and un-ordinary, indeed. Gregg has inspired countless youngsters at one of those everyday public schools filled with kids from all walks of life to reach for heights they could never have imagined or accomplished on their own. He is a young man with incredible passion and a never-ending commitment to his craft and his students. He is also proof positive of what a great teacher can accomplish.

To garner the level of success PS22 has reached, there has to be both hard work and luck. Utilizing powerful arrangements and an eclectic repertoire of musical choices, Gregg saw to it that the students took care of the first part.

They then caught the attention of the likes of Perez Hilton, Ashton Kutcher and a few others who went on to make America aware of these amazing young singers. Thanks to the kind words of these and other celebrities, PS22 chorus videos have now received more than 14 million views across the net.

Today we discuss with Gregg that fateful decision regarding becoming a teacher, the possible reasons why those in his chorus perform better on standardized tests, his mantra of never underestimating his students (be sure to check out Alicea performing Jingle Bells in a school corridor), and some of the many hats great teachers juggle every day: clown, therapist, social worker, manager and coach.

You have said that your parents were the catalyst to your choosing teaching as a profession. Can you talk a little bit about how they steered you into your life’s work?

My parents were both teachers (now retired) and they definitely had the biggest hand in getting me started on the road to my career. After graduating college (SUNY New Paltz) with a bachelor’s degree in Music Theory & Composition, I really had no clue where I was headed in terms of a career. I always questioned my own abilities as an artist, and decided I didn’t have the vocal or instrumental talent to really make it in the industry as a performer. My songwriting and arranging were my strengths. I didn’t know how those skills would come into play, but I did know that music was going to factor into my life’s work.

So for three years after school, I pretty much floundered, giving the occasional piano or guitar lesson. I made enough to support myself while living at home, but I think my dad especially was terribly afraid I would never leave — a curse that apparently afflicts many parents of creative children! So my folks basically read me the riot act, and I agreed to go back to school for a master’s degree in education. I had worked with kids at camp as a music specialist every summer since I graduated high school. It was something I enjoyed, so it seemed to be a natural transition to go into a career of music education — thankfully a decision I’ve had little opportunity to regret since!

At the beginning of that wonderful MSNBC clip on the chorus, a youngster offers a pretty candid assessment of you: “Mr. B, he’s a handful – he teaches us but we teach him – he’s not just a regular teacher – he is un-ordinary.” What a line!

blogheader 2010 (zendrig)
Joey was a defining presence for the 2008-9 group. He’s one of those all-around great students with smarts, talent, and personality. He was one of my “chorus coaches” that help me test run arrangements and then assist me in teaching it to the rest of the group. To be a coach you have to perform exceptionally in chorus and out. So yeah, Joey is that kind of student. The thing I’ll never forget about him is his laugh — he had this hearty guffaw whenever he’d poke fun at me that was completely infectious!

In prior interviews, you indicated your approach to working with students comes in part from learning what certain music teachers did with you, a set of dos and don’ts so to speak. Can you give aspiring teachers a sense of some of the specific things you learned and now practice?

The Dos? Do understand that there is a direct correlation between achieving results from your students and your students desire to achieve those results. My means of creating that kind of environment in which a student wants to work may differ from a math teacher’s perhaps, but the foundation is generally the same. You have to be aware of and sensitive to your student’s talents and their shortcomings. My favorite subjects when I was growing up were those in which I liked the teachers who ran the classroom. I think that’s how most kids perceive their school experience.

So kindness and patience are #1 with me. I also think it’s important to be willing to try things, step outside your comfort zone, embarrass yourself, make mistakes — because you can never forget that’s basically what you’re asking from all of your students at some point or another.

As for the Don’ts? I guess most importantly, don’t ever underestimate your students. Your students should never stop amazing and inspiring you. If I ever began to lose my love for the profession, I’d know the problem was with me and it’s time to close shop and start something else. Needless to say, I don’t foresee that happening anytime soon!

I am a little unclear as to your teaching responsibilities, your schedule and how the chorus fits into your teaching assignment. Can you explain your full teaching responsibilities and how the chorus fits into that schedule?

Three days a week I teach regular 45-minute general music classes to mostly the upper grades (4 and 5). Two days a week I work with the chorus and on projects related to the chorus. The chorus meets in the afternoon, 2 days a week for an hour and half session.

In the videos, it isn’t just the singing that captures a viewer’s attention – it is the passion the students bring and the gestures that show their enthusiasm for what they are doing. One young lady named Davoya said of you: “At first, when I sang, I had no emotion. I didn’t move. But Mr. B. taught me to sing with feeling. With feeling and heart.” What steps do you take to help students be free to show genuine emotion when they sing?

It’s really about creating the environment that I talked about earlier, which is a slow process. At this point in my career, it’s a lot easier, because the kids across the grades see the fifth graders doing this now, so they kind of understand it comes with the territory by the time they reach my classroom. But encouragement is always needed, even with a seasoned group. I try to safely draw positive attention to a confident kid that is doing things correctly and can handle being made an example of. Of course it comes more naturally and easily to some than to others. But having a kid like Joey, who is very self-confident and popular among his peers, makes it okay for the kids that are perhaps a bit more inhibited. And sometimes the kids that perform the most genuinely are those that are the most reserved at the beginning of the year.

The kids are not only allowed, but encouraged to wholly express themselves. They don’t have to sit in the traditional choral setting, with shoulders arched, chest out, stomach in, etc…. NOT for me! I want the kids to convey and elicit emotion when they’re performing, and that doesn’t happen when you have them lined up like musical soldiers. What’s so great about these guys, you can watch their videos with the sound down and you still get the gist of what they’re singing about. PS22 Chorus kids are fully expressed! And when you add those harmonies into the mix that range from blazing hot (like in “Run This Town” by Jay-Z) to wistfully beautiful (such as in “Wintersong” by Sarah McLachlan) performed with startling precision, especially when considering their age, you know you’re onto something special. Sure, you expect something cute when you click on the vids, ‘cuz they’re kids and all, but really you’re getting something so much more.

Also important in achieving soulful performances I suppose is the fact that I don’t park my behind on a piano bench and stare blankly at the keys while leading. I don’t leave my students to do this on their own. We all, myself included, are responsible for putting the work together because that’s what this process demands in order to be done successfully. As I basically said before, the teacher/director had better be prepared to give what he’s asking for.

Your principal, Melissa Donath had this remarkable thing to say: “the test scores and grades of the 10- and 11-year-old warblers have soared since they’ve been together.” This development has to give you enormous satisfaction to say nothing of what it does for support for the arts. Why do you think test scores for your students have soared? Is it about the music? The passion you awaken in students?

It’s all about self-confidence. That is what the arts has to offer, especially to kids that aren’t necessarily succeeding academically. Throughout their chorus experience, my students recognize that their musical achievements are something they earn for themselves through hard work and dedication. That is a life lesson that does not restrict itself to music.

Kids that are musical and not necessarily mathematically inclined, can digest mathematical concepts musically that they might not be able to in math class. The two subjects are definitely related, and I’ve seen many a light bulb go on when teaching fractions through rhythm, from the same kids that were just not getting it otherwise.

Focus, concentration, and stamina are undeniably strengthened as well. Music and the arts are just the tool to unlock the hidden potential, and as it manifests, it carries over to all other areas of school and hopefully ultimately life. offered this assessment after watching you teach: “At 35, Breinberg is handsome, erratic and funny, and he looks and acts like an overgrown fifth-grader himself.” How much of your success do you attribute to your ability to understand just what makes a fifth grader tick?

If I had to break it down, I would say it’s equal parts communication, energy, respect (for each other and the music) and a sufficient degree of musical talent.

Of all the pieces on the YouTube site, one of my personal favorites is the Oscar Meyer Wiener piece complete with outtakes. Can you give me just a brief little insight into this wonderful gem?

For several years, Oscar Mayer sponsored a contest for schools across the nation to have students record and submit a video singing the Oscar Mayer theme song. They would choose one grand prizewinner and 2 schools from each state to receive a visit from the Oscar Mayer WienerMobile! So with so much at stake, instead of just having the chorus sing the jingle, I wrote an entire commercial for the kids to act out. I knew Russell was going to be the central character — he was perfect!! He had the biggest smile you’d ever seen on a little second grade face, and was completely irresistible in the role!

As you can tell from the outtakes, the kids all had a blast while filming it, despite the fact that our submission ultimately didn’t win the contest. (Not even a visit from the WienerMobile! ) The irony is that our jingle has probably been seen more than the winning entry thanks to the power of the internet. In fact, if you search for “Oscar Mayer Wiener” on YouTube, the PS22 Oscar Mayer ‘commercial’ will come up on the first page.

And my understanding is you may have once worked as a clown at summer camp before making teaching your career choice. My guess is that it likely helped you immensely in preparing for teaching? Are there specific aspects of clowning you utilize in the classroom on a regular basis?

121709nohappybdayOh I definitely own my inner clown! But I will say that although I do think being a clown is definitely part of my persona, it’s only a facet. Laughter is a good way to start to break the ice with the kids, but the emotional range of the chorus goes far beyond levity. So yes, I’m a clown, but I’m also a therapist, a social worker, a manager, a coach, etc…. Teachers have to know how to juggle their hats.

You and the chorus have become an internet phenomena – heck the chorus is even on Wikipedia. But are there aspects of the teaching profession that at times get you frustrated or discouraged? If so what are they and how do you deal with them?

Indeed, watching experiences for the kids fall by the wayside is extremely frustrating, and could become discouraging if I allowed it to. We have indeed been offered opportunities that the Dept. Of Education did not approve (i.e. making a CD/DVD on a major label, documentaries). I will say, they have gotten a bit easier to negotiate with now that the international recognition has recently hit home within the last year. They seem to understand now that this is all positive attention being brought to a NYC public school, and has provided our students with nothing short of life-changing experiences. Hopefully next time we’re offered something along the lines of what has been turned down in the past, we’ll be in a better position to make it happen.

But as long as I can continue to provide my students with the experiences that they’ve earned for themselves, I can handle the disappointments along the way. The setbacks only make me more determined to set forward with whatever comes next.

Would you ever consider teaching at a different level, say middle or high school? Why or why not? Or consider school administration? And if you were not a teacher, what would you be doing for work?

Right now, I think I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, and I have no plans to go anywhere. Life is about working to your potential to make some kind of difference and trying to find happiness along the way. I quite honestly don’t know if any career could bring me to life more than my work with the PS22 Chorus.

The success you and the chorus have achieved is truly mind-boggling. How do you go about keeping the kids grounded? And for that matter, how do you go about keeping your own feet firmly placed on the ground?

14 MillionTom, I don’t think my feet were EVER firmly planted on the ground — just watch the vids! But seriously, the majority of the chorus children come from humble and modest backgrounds — these aren’t spoiled bratty stage kids. We, all of us, live in real life (despite the occasional excursion inside a fairy tale, like singing at The White House for the prez!). When all is ‘sung and done’, it’s back to business and the day to day…. homework and all! So yes, we’ve all managed to stay grounded, making sure to keep the sharing of the joy of music as the central focus of the project.

However I do hope as they move on that the memories of these unbelievable experiences the PS22 Chorus kids have earned for themselves will be a continued source of inspiration that they can call upon throughout their lives. I always try to remind them that they themselves have become living proof that through hard work, anything is possible.

What’s really astonishing is that if you just type in ‘chorus’ on YouTube PS22 vids are the first thing you see. It still blows me away how these kids have really become a bonafide internet sensation!

That’s a pretty amazing accomplishment for a 10-year-old, wouldn’t you say?

January 11, 2010   25 Comments

Technology and Literacy – Creating Better Writers

There is a growing sentiment that success hinges in great part on a student’s self-confidence. Whether it is the study of sophisticated mathematics or tossing a basketball in a hoop, those who believe in their abilities are able to consistently move on to greater challenges with a sense they will be able to meet the expectations set forth.

No doubt, some folks would differ with that sentiment. At InstructorWeb, we see reference to the mainstays of ongoing academic success: the need for study, practice, and review. Certainly those elements play a key role as well.

But the site also notes that self-worth and self-confidence cannot be overlooked, that “mental attitude is more relevant to success than academic aptitude.” Even more importantly, InstructorWeb insists “children who are convinced that they can succeed will succeed” and “will do so without the anxiety and nervousness that is so common among poor achievers.”

Boosting Literacy Skills

iStock_000002832253XSmallThe importance of self-confidence is a critical development embedded within the results of a recent survey by the National Literacy Trust, a charity actively promoting literacy in the United Kingdom. The online survey of 3001 students from England and Scotland, ages 8-16, revealed key relational findings between technology and patterns of reading and writing, two areas many educators often see as disparate or even mutually exclusive.

Explaining the basics of the study, Jonathan Douglas, director of the National Literacy Trust, told BBC News:

“Engagement with online technology drives” student “enthusiasm for writing” in all its various formats, “short stories, letters, song lyrics or diaries.”

But ultimately, the key finding from the survey is one that educators should pay critical attention to: Children who blog, text or use social networking websites are more confident about their writing skills than those who do not use such sites.

According to the survey, when it came to writing, 75% of all students wrote regularly and most of those who did so reported putting both pen to paper as well as fingers to a keyboard. According to NLT, 82% of those surveyed sent text messages at least once a month while 73% used instant messaging services to chat online with friends. In contrast, 77% acknowledged putting pen to paper to write either class notes or when doing homework.

Though one might not be surprised at texting or instant messaging percentage, one of the most amazing statistics involved the significant number of students blogging. According to NLT, 24% of surveyed students wrote regularly on a blog.

Moving on to the element of confidence, of the children who neither blogged nor used social network sites, less than one in two (47%) rated their writing as “good” or “very good.” Meanwhile, more than half of all those (56%) who use social media and three of every five (61%) bloggers rated their writing as good or very good.

For those who continue to insist that technology is undermining basic reading and writing literacy, that the writing styles students use in online chat environments or when texting one another is detrimental, these findings and others had Douglas insisting he would have none of it.

“The more forms of communications children use the stronger their core literary skills,” Douglas informed the BBC. “Does it damage literacy? Our research results are conclusive – the more forms of communications children use the stronger their core literary skills.”

iStock_000008519301XSmallDouglas went on to relate one other critical point, one we have noted in the past: kids need to learn to distinguish between different writing styles.

Interesting Gender/Socioeconomic Findings

The random study yielded a near 50-50 gender split but did include a larger percentage of respondents who received free school meals (20.2%) than the U.K. average for primary and secondary students.

The male-female breakouts revealed some very interesting developments. Perhaps not too surprisingly, the boys reported that they did not enjoy writing as much as girls (38% vs. 52%). They also were more apt to rate themselves as ‘not very good writers’ (48% vs. 42%). In addition, boys were more likely than girls to agree with statements that ‘writing is boring’ (57% vs. 41%) and with ‘writing is more for girls than for boys’ (60% vs. 43%).

But for those looking to hook young men academically, the study revealed that boys held a more positive attitude towards computers and they were more likely than girls to believe that computers were beneficial to writing.

Another very interesting, and at times counter-intuitive development, involved the responses of the students qualifying for free school meals (FSM). First, there was no relationship between socio-economic status and enjoyment of writing, writing behavior, linking writing to success, views of writers, computer use, or attitudes towards computers. But heading back to the confidence arena, students outside the FSM group rated themselves as better writers than pupils who receive FSMs.

Similar Doubts Everywhere

Just as we see here on this side of the pond, there remains great skepticism among educators regarding technology use, particularly any steps that might encourage students to spend time online. In fact, John Coe, general secretary of the National Association for Primary Education, specified a growing concern of educators.

iStock_000000642945XSmallWhile there is no doubt enormous advantage to developing the relationship between teacher and child, Coe told the BBC, “sometimes the computer is closer to the child than the teacher by the age of 13.” But Coe went on to add that NAPE was looking into ways to incorporate the passion students had for texting into teaching methods.

That said, reverting once again to the confidence arena, it is imperative that educators understand why technology can be such a positive tool overall. Surveyed students not only said they used computers regularly; they also believed that computers were beneficial to their writing.

They reported that a computer made it easier for them to correct mistakes (89%), allowed them to present ideas more clearly (76%), and that computers allowed them to be more creative, concentrate more and even encouraged them to write more often (60%). In contrast, two of the most common reasons why youngsters indicated they were not good writers involved an inability to write neatly (23%) or not being very good at spelling (21%).

Simply stated, technology gave these youngsters greater confidence. Combine that with the ever-present desire of students to use technology and we have a clear indication as to why teachers would do well to incorporate social media and blogging opportunities into their basic literacy programs.

In fact, in a day and age when there are growing concerns with the academic development of young boys, the use of technology could well be the path to enhanced engagement for this group.

January 5, 2010   2 Comments

Teaching and Learning – Study Reveals “How Teachers See the Profession Today”

For those in the business of setting educational policy, Teaching for a Living: How Teachers See the Profession Today by Jean Johnson, Andrew Yarrow, Jonathan Rochkind and Amber Ott reveals some remarkable insights from current practitioners.

iStock_000000275835XSmallConducted by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan and nonprofit agency that seeks to bridge “the gap between American leaders and what the public really thinks about issues,” the research raises a few eyebrows regarding the way it categorizes those interviewed. However, once one gets by the language chosen for the three broad, but distinct categories of teachers, there is some extremely important data regarding the role of the principal, the current testing practices in vogue, and the push towards merit pay for teachers.

Categorizing Respondents – Disheartened, Contented and Idealists

Using the phrase “three distinct sensibilities” as a subheader, the researchers cluster analyzed the “unique individual characteristics” and “attitudes about the profession” of more than 900 teacher respondents. Based on those two criteria, the researchers indicated that teachers naturally fell into three broad categories: the “Disheartened,” the “Contented,” and the “Idealists.”

Those categorized as Disheartened (about 40% of all teachers) tended to agree with the notion that teaching was “so demanding, it’s a wonder that more people don’t burn out.” The report indicated that “members of that group tend to have been teaching longer and are older than the Idealists.” They also noted that most members of this group were concerned with their working conditions (more than half of this group taught in low-income schools).

Those in the Contented group (37 percent of teachers overall) offered a more positive overall view. The majority indicated their schools were “orderly, safe, and respectful.” They also indicated they were satisfied with their administrators. Like the disheartened group, the contented teachers tended to be veterans – 94 percent have been teaching for more than 10 years. But in direct contrast to the disheartened, about two-thirds of those deemed contented taught in middle-income or affluent schools.

As one might expect from the word chosen to describe the third group, the Idealists (23% overall) voiced the most positive viewpoints regarding the profession. In fact, “nearly 9 in 10 idealists believe that ‘good teachers can lead all students to learn, even those from poor families or who have uninvolved parents.'” Perhaps not too surprisingly, more than half of this group were 32 years-of-age or younger. At the same time, instead of viewing their current role as lifelong, more than one third of idealists indicated they would eventually leave the classroom for other jobs in the field.

iStock_000007246008XSmallAny teacher reading the report, including this one, would no doubt take some time to try and place themselves in one of the selected categories. But it is important to recognize that the researchers went on to clarify their categories did not insinuate a rating of teacher effectiveness. Instead, their three sensibilities represented only the respondents’ attitudes towards the profession.

Common Themes for Policy Makers

As the Obama administration gets ready to pump billions into education, it is important to see the commonalities that emerge when one examines viewpoints. While many will no doubt write about the disheartened group and whether or not these individuals should still be leading classrooms, the research is far more important in revealing the shared views of each of the disparate groups. It would also be the best place for policymakers to gather some direct insight regarding the profession from those in the trenches.

Increasing Number of Teacher Candidates

For those wanting to create greater interest in the profession and somehow bring our best and brightest into the classroom, it is clear that one catalyst comes from the profession itself. When asked as to what were the important factors leading to the decision to go into teaching, the respondents indicated that the most powerful influence was a teacher who inspired them. Specifically, 68% of the contented, 64% of the disheartened and 66% of the idealists indicated that an inspirational teacher was a major or one of the most important factors for their choice of profession.

And while most tend to think of families of teachers, that teachers raise future educators, more than 60% from each group indicated that having a parent of family member who was a teacher played no role in their selecting the profession.

As for those thinking of extending the school year, it should be noted that roughly 50% of each of the three teacher groups indicated that the practical job benefits (summers off and more time with family) were a major factor or one of the most important factors in their choice of the profession.

And the real catalyst for each group centered upon the desire to teach a subject that he or she loved and to subsequently get kids excited about it. Ninety percent of contented, 91% of disheartened and 87% of idealists called this one of the most important factors for selecting the profession.

Issue of Teacher Pay

Classroom SeriesAs for drawbacks to entering the profession, teacher pay was clearly a problem for all groups. Seventy-six percent of contented teachers and 78% of idealists called it at least a minor drawback. But as one might expect, pay was a greater issue for the disheartened. More than half saw it as a major drawback and 96% saw it as at least a minor issue.

“Increasing teacher salaries to levels similar to other professional jobs such as lawyers and doctors” was definitely seen as a step towards improving teacher effectiveness by all three groups. Surprisingly, even 84% of contented teachers and 90% of idealists saw the step as either very or somewhat effective in improving teacher quality.

Lack of prestige was also an issue, at least to a certain extent for all three groups. But it was here that the variations were more pronounced. For contented, 53% called the lack of prestige at least a minor drawback. Idealists saw it as less of an issue with 45% calling it a minor or major problem. But for the disheartened, this was a real issue; 77% called it a major or minor drawback.

Those focused on increased accountability and the testing push that forms the fundamental component of NCLB should note that a major drawback for all three groups was the amount of testing going on in schools today. The issue was seen as at least a minor drawback by 90% of all idealists and was deemed a major issue by 70% of the disheartened.

Only one-quarter of each group thought it was “very important to use test scores to monitor student progress.” Roughly three-quarters of each group called test scores less important than a lot of other assessment measures.

Improving the Classroom Environment

Student discipline issues were a major concern for all in the profession. While 70% of the disheartened called kids with discipline and behavior issues a major drawback, 86% of contented and 70% of idealists called the issue at least a minor problem. At least 93% of each group thought that if students “who are severe discipline problems” were to be “removed from the classroom and placed in alternative programs more suited to them” the action would prove either very or somewhat effective in improving teacher effectiveness.

What was very interesting to note is that the disheartened strongly agreed with the statement, “teaching is so demanding, it’s a wonder that more people don’t burn out” (73%). However, it should be noted that contented teachers indicated they at least somewhat agreed with the statement at an 84% rate (and idealists at a 77% rate).

At the same time, 90% of both contented and idealists agreed with the statement “teaching is exactly what I wanted.”

As to what they would rank as the most difficult thing about being a teacher, the disheartened indicated lack of support from administrators was nearly as significant an issue as lack of effort from students. In direct contrast, the contented and the idealists saw the lack of support from parents and lack of effort from students as more of an issue than administrative support. Nearly one-third of each group indicated that one of the most difficult things about being a teacher was “unreasonable pressure to raise student achievement.”

Writing leadership on a blackboard.Clearly one disparate view came from how each teacher group rated their current principal. When it came to supporting them as teachers, 95% of contented and 92% of idealists rated their principals as either good or excellent. In contrast, only 41% of the disheartened saw their principal’s support as good or excellent.

And whereas nearly 80% of the contented and idealist groups would categorize their current principal as providing good or excellent instructional feedback, just 32% of the disheartened rated their principals in a similar manner. Perhaps most telling, more than half of contented and idealist teachers rated their current principal as excellent; but just 8% of the disheartened rated their principal excellent.

A last disparate element was the varied viewpoints on two relatively interesting components of achievement. Less than a quarter of idealists thought “the effort students make is mainly determined by the level of motivation they bring to the classroom” yet nearly half of all disheartened teachers felt effort was more a function of what the students brought to the classroom. But all thought teachers mattered and “what teachers do to motivate them once they get there” was seen as the most important element by all three groups.

General Noteworthy Elements

Policy makers would likely be pleased to see that one third of each teacher group thought that “making it easier to terminate ineffective teachers” could prove to be a very effective step “in terms of improving teacher effectiveness.” In addition, when it comes to teacher attitudes, school safety served as enormous correlate with a positive view of the profession. More than half of all disheartened teachers called it a major or minor drawback while less than a third of the other two teacher categories called it a problem.

And contented and idealists offered a more positive view regarding room for growth in the profession. Only 29% of disheartened said it was not a drawback. In contrast, 70% of the contented insisted it was not a problem.

School Reform Measures

With all the evidence related to student achievement correlating to the quality of instruction in the classroom, How Teachers See the Profession Today offers some strong insights for policy makers. And while it is easy to be critical of the teachers categorized as disheartened, it is clear that the majority of these individuals work in school environments all would see negatively.

More importantly, as one would expect from the study of successful businesses, leadership is the place to start. But reformers should note the changing perception of teachers regarding pay and the need for feeling a greater sense of prestige.

Add to that the concern for classrooms that may have too many discipline issues and disappointment over the ever-growing emphasis on testing and we have a clear view of the current issues facing those in the profession.

December 7, 2009   2 Comments

Ted Sizer and Gerald Bracey – The Loss of Two Influential Giants

In late October, the educational world lost two disparate giants from the world of education. On October 21st, we learned of the death of the quintessential educational reformer, Theodore Sizer. A native New Englander, Sizer dramatically influenced the instructional practices of thousands of educators including those of yours truly.

One day earlier, we lost Gerald Bracey, a longtime education researcher who had the audacity to truly analyze statistics. Bracey, considered one of the foremost defenders of American public schools used long-term international comparisons to demonstrate that America’s public school actually performed much better than critics would suggest.

Ted Sizer

Ted Sizer was the founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, a group that boasts about 600 members. These schools have adopted a specific school reform concept that construct learning experiences for students by focusing on a core set of principles.

Instead of the traditional comprehensive approach to high school Coalition schools focus on ten core principles:

  • Learning to use one’s mind well
  • Less is more, depth over coverage
  • Goals apply to all students
  • Personalization
  • Student-as-worker, teacher-as-coach
  • Demonstration of mastery
  • A tone of decency and trust
  • Commitment to the entire school
  • Resources dedicated to teaching and learning
  • Democracy and equity

Those of us who never taught in a Coalition school wondered aloud about some principles until we had the chance to read his groundbreaking book, Horace’s Compromise. Page by page, the book revealed the shortcomings of the 1980’s high school construct, offering a set of ideas that collectively had one wondering how we were able to accomplish anything of note in the factory model of education.

sizerThough I never met Mr.Sizer, after reading Horace’s Compromise and his later follow-ups, Horace’s School and Horace’s Hope, I felt somehow like I actually knew him, or at least had a sense of what he was all about. At times, Mr. Sizer took on the image of his character, “Horace,” the fictionalized English teacher doing his very best to provide a meaningful educational environment for some 100 plus students a day. At other times, I was Horace, the one making all the compromises to survive, and Sizer my administrator, deftly observing and pointing out that I too was often settling for good enough.

My understanding is that Ted Sizer was the epitome of what an educational leader should be. The former Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and headmaster at Phillips Academy in Andover was a brilliant yet reflective practitioner. He clearly subscribed to the Robert Kennedy school of thought, seeing things as they could be and wondering why not.

People spoke highly of his style and his propensity to listen to teachers. His respect for the educational process also meant he spent time with students seeking to determine their views on school and what they had learned.

Most importantly, Sizer’s work represented the antithesis of the current NCLB push, that somehow educational reform can be simplified and codified. Sizer understood real learning was not linear and that mastery could and should be demonstrated in multiple ways.

The current emphases on making larger schools feel smaller and on high expectations for all students were fundamental to Sizer’s principles. Other concepts like the change in teacher role from the “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side” were fueled by Sizer’s teacher as coach model.

Gerald Bracey

Reportedly fearless in the face of power, Bracey was often described in very different terms than Sizer. Adjectives like pugnacious and abrasive were generally used to describe the man who saw Washington as being ignorant and intellectually lazy.

In 1991 he founded the Education Disinformation Detection and Reporting Agency or EDDRA. To most folks it did not seem to matter the subject – whether it was charter schools, teacher merit pay, or high-stakes testing — Bracey stood in opposition.
Even when it came to the concept of standards, Bracey stood in opposition. He was reported as offering this as one of his last Tweets:

“Thinking that the light at the end of the education tunnel is a standards freight train coming our way. Gonna hurt bad.”
Bracey taught the non-statistical world about Simpson’s paradox and the concept of averages. The concept reveals the possibility that data collectively could contradict what happened within subgroups creating the total.

braceySuch was the case with American SAT scores. While minorities and white majorities were each increasing their scores, the large number of minorities now taking the test meant the overall average test scores were decreasing.

Once a person begins to understand Simpson’s Paradox, any thought of supporting NCLB and its various subgroup expectations goes out the window.

Bracey also pointed out in his book, Reading Educational Research, How to Avoid Getting Statistically Snookered, the workings of former President George Bush and his tax cuts. Bush used the concept of average to create the illusion that Americans as a group were seeing significant tax reductions, about $1500 per person per year.

However, Bracey pointed out that was “on average.” Citing the work of the Washington Post, Bracey noted how the typical teacher would receive a tax reduction equal to the cost of a new television set while someone earning a million dollars a year received a tax break that was roughly twice as large as the typical teacher’s salary. But when these amounts were averaged, every American appeared to receive a substantial break.

Each year Bracey would offer his annual Rotten Apples in Education awards and with it he would take no prisoners. It must be noted that while an enormous critic of George Bush and a one time advocate and campaigner for Barack Obama, he was quick to call Obama to task earlier this year regarding his assertions that three-fourths of the fastest-growing occupations require more than a high school diploma.

“Not really,” Bracey was quoted. “Look it up.”

It was classic Bracey who had one consistent response to many of the claims being asserted regarding public education, “Show me the data.”

November 17, 2009   No Comments