Monthly Archives: January 2014

Why [a rigid binary view of] Gender Matters

Recently, as part of a book study, I sat down to read Why Gender Matters by Dr. Leonard Sax. I’ll confess, the title set me on my guard even though he is the founder and executive director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education. By the end of the book, I was poised to write a comprehensive, point-by-point take-down. Fortunately, that is not where the story stops.

I paused near the end of the book to send out a message on Twitter asking for people’s reactions to Dr. Sax and his work, realizing that in my frustration with certain ideas I might not be giving other ideas sufficient credit. A parent said he had opened her eyes to the notion that single-gender education might be best for certain kids. A teacher said that kids at her school were highly engaged with him and refused to settle down and stop asking questions after he spoke when time was up. And another online colleague wrote me privately, in part to support his ideas but also to humanize him.

Meanwhile, I had found an online article critical of him – written by Dr. Lise Eliot. She is on the Board of Directors of the American Council for Co-Educational Schooling, of whose work I have been critical on occasion. I felt as though something was off, that I was missing something deeply important.

I took a deep breath, and took stock of the situation. Dr. Sax, after all, seemed to support finding methods of schooling that allow kids to emerge from straitjacketed gender roles, writing “We want every child to grow up to be an adult who is comfortable expressing both feminine and masculine attributes, whatever is appropriate for the situation.” (location 4091) And Dr. Eliot is equally adamant that we need to avoid gender stereotyping, writing in an editorial for ASCD, “It’s time teachers appreciate the true, nuanced science of sex difference—that boys and girls are not from separate planets, and must be treated, first and foremost, as individuals, rather than gender stereotypes.”

Toward this end, perhaps both Dr. Sax and Dr. Eliot have something to teach us. A medical doctor, Dr. Sax tends to focus on the effect of genetics in setting up predominant patterns of brain activity that are in place from birth. He opposes strict social constructionists who say biology has no input. Fair enough. A neuroscientist, Dr. Eliot tends to focus on the plasticity of the brain and how relatively minimal differences are progressively magnified by life experience in constantly reshaping the brain. Again, that makes sense.

Yet, it remains true that some of Dr. Sax’s ideas disturb me. In Chapter Nine of his book, he writes of “anomalous boys” and “anomalous girls” who do not conform to the gender expectations generally held by our culture. He says on the one hand, “the tomboy – the girl who prefers some male-typical activities – should be encouraged to pursue those gender-atypical activities” (location 3849) and on the other, “The anomalous male then appears to represent a distinct physiological type and a real challenge to parents – who often don’t see that there’s a problem.” (location 3715). Though I am sure the effect is wholly unintentional, and though I am aware that the subsequent nine years of research since the book was published may have shifted Dr. Sax’s thinking in some ways, I find myself left feeling he has bought into a patriarchal system where masculinity is more highly valued than femininity. Granted, as a gender activist and as someone who would probably have been defined by Dr. Sax as an “anomalous boy,” I definitely admit to a personal bias of my own on the issue.

As for Lise Eliot, she too (again, I am sure, with all good intention) appears to bring a personal bias to her own look at research. In a recent article in The American, Dr. Eliot refers to a 2009 study done by Dr. Linda Sax of UCLA and commissioned by the National Coalition of Girls Schools, stating that after controlling for various factors distinguishing the girls schools in the study from the coed schools, “most of these [positive academic] effects were erased or diminished, to the point that the researchers found it reasonable to conclude ‘that the marginal benefits do not justify the potential threats to gender equity brought on by academic sex segregation’” I’ll confess, I squirmed when I read this. I’ve seen the report, presented it to my students, written about it. Had I really missed something this damning?

Then I went to the original report, and read among the conclusions: “Advocates of all-girls schooling may view these results as an affirmation of their efforts to create environments that foster the development of intellectually engaged and self-confident young women. Critics of single-sex education, on the other hand, may conclude that the marginal benefits do not justify the potential threats to gender equity brought on by academic sex segregation.” (p.64) Putting the quote in context gives us something wholly different from what Dr. Eliot was implying, especially given that many of the benefits noted in the (Linda) Sax report were in fact more social than academic in nature.

In my work, in searching for research-based methods of instruction appropriate to each of my individual students, Dr. Joann Deak’s contention that “80% of girls have female-differentiated brains and 20% have male-differentiated brains,” (grover, at 21apples.org) has been particularly helpful. Furthermore, brain wiring is currently thought to be distinct from a personal sense of gender identity. With these givens, you do have the impetus to look hard at the individual you have in front of you, and get to know and to educate that specific person, regardless of perceived gender. This goal echoes Dr. Eliot’s earlier words.

And I concede that Dr. Eliot has a point in that single-gender schools are an opportunity that can easily be abused. I know of cases where girls schools play into stereotypes in the worst ways, painting walls pink, having girls fabricate make-up in chemistry class, and the like. I will very quickly stand by Dr. Eliot’s side in denouncing such practices.

However, I do not see those practices happening at my school. I see a genuine commitment to feminist ideals, even though they may be expressed in different ways by different people, and a genuine commitment to both raising awareness of and breaking down gender stereotypes. And I know we are not alone; Emma Willard School, for example, host to groundbreaking work in girls psychology by Dr. Carol Gilligan and her associates in the late 1980s, regularly posts feminist links and ideas in their twitter feed, just as we do.

Would this level of commitment to anti-sexism and gender activism be possible in a coed school? My students are skeptical; when the question came up during our unit on “What makes girls and women feel more or less powerful?” the general sentiment was that it was way easier to talk honestly and openly about feminism and issues of sexism in general at our school than it ever was at their prior coed schools. For that to take place in a coed school would, of course, be the ideal. But my students and I, at any rate, are honestly not sure our society is there yet.

So, we teachers (and parents) look at what brain science tells us – how our brains are shaped in utero and after we are born, how gender does and does not affect that – and we do our best to determine what we can do to educate our students to the best of our ability, to break down gender stereotypes, to work for gender equity. In the end, Dr. Sax, Dr. Eliot, and Dr. Deak – and I as well – all share the same fundamental goals, as do most of us. The key, then, is to listen respectfully and with an open mind to different perspectives, think critically, and continually seek to learn and grow so that all of us, of all ages and genders, can truly be our best selves.

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Filed under Gender, On Education, On Parenting, The Girls School Advantage, Uncategorized

Your Thoughts

On Sunday, I received an email from my friend Jeremy Deason (a former Athletic Director and middle school teacher/advisor here) with the subject header “Your Thoughts.” I always smile whenever I hear from Jeremy, and was excited to see what was up. He invited me to look at the following three links in order and write some quick notes of reaction after reading each article before proceeding on to the next. I’ll share them now in case anyone wants to do the same before reading on here, though I will also summarize important ideas for anyone who prefers to simply continue reading:
1. http://t.co/l5UGFV66fW
2. http://t.co/ZFSZgtAFpP
3. http://bit.ly/KgBZ4n

**********
[optional Jeopardy theme song here!]
**********

As it turned out, and as I had vaguely suspected, I had read the first article already. Indeed, my Twitter feed had lit up with people reacting to it. On Wednesday, January 15, Caleb Hannan published a piece on Grantland, an ESPN-affiliated website intended to support and highlight excellent long-form sports writing online. It was entitled Dr. V’s Magical Putter and, in a not uncommon initial reaction, one of Mr. Hannan’s followers tweeted on the day of its publication, “This could end up being the best article I’ve read all year.”

That was not the message of the tweets that had lit up my Twitter feed on Friday. What I was seeing was anger, outrage, hurt. What had gone wrong over those two days?

The story concerned a physicist, Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt, who had come up with a radical new design for a putter that seemingly worked like a charm. As Mr. Hannan checked out the club (he loved it) and tracked down the rest of story, he uncovered strange gaps in her past, and found among other things that she had lied about her academic credentials. If he had left it there, it would have been a gripping and fascinating story that people might continue to be calling the best article they read all year. But he didn’t.

And even when he learned that she was a trans woman in deep stealth, had he kept that information to himself or shared it with her while explicitly saying he would honor their original agreement that he “focus on the science and not the scientist,” things might have turned out differently. But he didn’t.

He outed her to an investor. Dr. V learned what he knew, and became increasingly desperate. The last time he heard from her, she threatened him and told him he was about to commit a hate crime.

And then, last October, she killed herself.

Mr. Hannan included all this information in his piece, including her birth name, misgendering her on multiple occasions, and thus repeatedly violating the guidelines of the easily accessible GLAAD Media Reference Guide – Transgender Glossary of Terms. So the hurt, outrage, and anger being expressed on Twitter (and elsewhere) stemmed not just from the events leading up to Dr. V’s suicide but also to the article that came out afterwards.

To Grantland’s credit, Bill Simmons wrote what both Jeremy and I felt read like a sincere and heartfelt apology, and they provided space for Chistina Kahrl, a staff writer who also serves on the Board of Directors of GLAAD, to write a response. Mr. Simmons wrote in part, “I realized over the weekend that I didn’t know nearly enough about the transgender community – and neither does my staff. I read Caleb’s piece a certain way because of my own experiences in life. That’s not an acceptable excuse; it’s just what happened.” and Ms. Kahrl noted, “Because of this screw-up, we owe it to the ruin wrought in its wake to talk about the desperate lives that most transgender Americans lead and the adaptive strategies they have to come up with while trying to deal with the massive rates of under- and unemployment from which the trans community generally suffers. And we owe it to Essay Anne to understand how an attempt to escape those things became its own kind of trap, one Grantland had neither the right nor the responsibility to spring.”

Mr. Hannan tweeted on Jan. 17, the day Twitter exploded, “For what it’s worth, I haven’t blocked anyone today. I’m reading all of this. I’m totally overwhelmed, but I’m reading.”

Jeremy commented during the course of our exchange that “[he wonders] if this is the type of thing that we will (hopefully) look back on in 10-20 years as being even more ridiculous and ignorant than it is today. If it makes sense, it’s almost like the same piece could have been written 10-20 years ago with the only difference being Dr. V was gay, not [transgender].” There’s no question that, just as our culture’s attitudes toward lesbians and gay men shifted as they became increasingly visible in our society, so too our culture’s attitudes toward transgender people are beginning to shift with their own greater visibility. That is all to the good, and brings hope.

But that visibility must come at a time of their own choosing. No one else has the right to make that choice. No one.

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Adding Value

John Chubb, the President of the National Association of Independent Schools, has written a follow-up to the Prominent Research Gathering held at NAIS on Monday and Tuesday, Jan. 6-7 (and about which I wrote on Jan. 8) on the President’s blog. Entitled “Research and Ravenscroft,” it takes a look at what other independent schools can learn from Ravenscroft’s work and illuminates some of the themes set at the gathering.

Dr. Chubb writes that “The independent school folks we asked to join this meeting are at the forefront of the movement to use data to inform school decision-making.” As a long-standing day school (it was founded in 1862), Dr. Chubb notes, Ravenscroft has repeatedly adapted to the changing population of the region, thriving through these continually evolving challenges. So far, so good, although we are (for the moment) a little short on details.

Dr. Chubb continues on to reference Caroline Hoxby, an economics professor at Stanford whose fields of expertise include the economics of education, and Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University and whose specialties include finance and productivity. Dr. Hoxby noted that as the population of people interested in and able to send their children to independent schools diversifies, “We need to appreciate that by virtue of their diverse educational, racial, and ethnic backgrounds, our ability to reach them may need to be much different and more nuanced than has been our custom.” (Chubb) Dr. Roza suggested that “If schools directed more of their effort and resources toward having the best teachers in town, they might find that other expenditures made to meet parent and student demand are less necessary.” (Chubb)

As someone who works in a school that seeks to promote diversity from a number of perspectives, I find I have mixed feelings about these sentiments. Dr. Hoxby’s notion of working hard to ensure we are thoroughly aware of the diverse population of our school and their highly individual needs appeals to me, of course. How better to serve our students? On the other hand, Dr. Roza’s suggestion raises serious questions. I have no quarrel, of course, with independent schools seeking skilled and gifted teachers – all schools, all students, in public and private schools alike, deserve this. What worries me is the “other expenditures… are less necessary.” part. I’m not sure what this could refer to other than the “extras” such as athletics, a comprehensive arts program, advisory, community service, a wealth of clubs such as Debate and the Literary Society, and more. In point of fact, these kinds of signature programs are fundamentally necessary to our school, and not just because they bring us wonderful students seeking these very opportunities which are far too frequently denied to public schools due to funding cuts and monies diverted to over-testing. Research is quite clear that a holistic program that nurtures the whole child produces better results in all areas as each one reinforces the others. So, were we to shift our resources away from these areas, not only would we conceivably be attracting a less diverse population, but also we would conceivably be doing a poorer job helping each student grow as much as possible in her personal and unique diversity of talents.

Dr. Chubb also refers to another article listing some of the questions raised during the gathering, and they are intriguing. For one example, the group asked “Is the independent school experience driven by what families want? By the structure and nature of schools? By the business community’s needs?” There are a wealth of discussions that could be held around any one of these questions. As in the past, Dr. Chubb notes that “Here in this blog and through our social media outlets, we’ll be asking you to comment and to share your experiences.” It is my fervent hope that a wide range of schools, educators, and families engage in the discussion.

In this light, the conclusion to my cousin Dr. Bruce Baker’s reaction to Dr. Chubb’s blog may be informative. He writes, “Policymakers and advocates seeking to craft academic value-added metrics for private schools might be wise instead to consider how the individualization and talent development approach of private schools (with access to rich curricular, co-curricular and extra-curricular opportunities so often classified as inefficiencies and undermining narrowly measured value-added) might inform policies and practices in public schooling.” Given what I know of research, given my personal experience in an independent school unfettered by NCLB and high-stakes testing run amok, and given my staunch support of the need to advocate for our public schools, I would completely agree.

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Dis-empowering the Good Mother myth

To evolve as humans, we must let go of behaviors and attitudes that hold the rest of humanity back. – Christy Turlington Burns, from the Introduction to the good mother myth, edited by Avital Norman Nathman.

“So what are you going to do when you leave?” my son asked me as we stood together in his dorm room with several bags full of clothing, food, and other supplies set out on the floor waiting to be unpacked. I couldn’t help but think that, happy as he was to be back at college, ready to see his friends and throw himself into a new term’s worth of courses, he knew the house would be empty without him there and was wondering how I’d be doing. And in truth, I was mostly, transparently, trying not to think too hard about the Kian-sized hole that awaited me when I eventually – because I was definitely not going to hurry – got back home.

Awash in thought over all the time he’d spent alone over the past two weeks while I was at work, sometimes not getting home until after 8:30 with work still left to do, trying desperately to think as I drove home of something tasty and reasonably different from the previous night that I could cook for him, I asked myself “What kind of parent am I?” – by no means for the first, or hundredth, or I suppose millionth time. It’s not that I haven’t tried to do my best, and it’s not that I have any regrets when I think about who my son is. He is a truly wonderful person – loving, smart, kind, respectful, with a subtle and surprising sense of humour that brings delighted laughter up from deep within you. He loves his school, has great friends, knows the value of hard work. He is independent and values community. Like all of us, he is imperfect; unlike far too many of us, he manages for the most part to keep that awareness without either letting it get him down or letting it become an excuse. Yet, I seem to always feel I could have, should have, somehow done better by him.

And here’s the thing. I’m not even his mother. As a father, I have found the bar is set ridiculously low for society’s expectations of my parenting skills. But expectations for mothers are set to a whole different level. As Christy Turlington Burns wrote in the foreword to the good mother myth, the powerful and important collection of essays edited by Avital Norman Nathman, “[The ideal of the Good Mother is] a myth that is largely predicated on patriarchal constructs, one that creates false standards that sets women up for failure, not success, and for judgment instead of support.” (p. x) Through a series of remarkable essays written by several dozen mothers, this book seeks to break the hold of the Good Mother myth and reveal “the collective consciousness of ever-evolving women who share the experience known as motherhood.” (Turlington Burns, p. xi) It has the potential to do for mothers what Rachel Simmons‘s Curse of the Good Girl did for girls.

From the first sentence of the first essay, “Ichabod’s Ghost” by Abby Sher, I knew I was in unfamiliar – and welcome – territory: “The first time I dropped my daughter Sonya on her head from a great height, she was about eight months old.” (p.21) As we follow the saga of Sonya’s tumbling out of a four-poster bed, sinking underwater as she practiced new-found swimming skills, and losing her balance and falling to the asphalt from her mom’s shoulders, we cringe, gasp, tear up, and smile softly with a somewhat wry relief. When Ms. Sher writes, “By now, the biggest question in my head was who let me be a mom, and is there a way to rethink that decision?” (p.23) and “It took me a week to stop rereading the list of concussion signs that Dr. O mentioned. And another year of talk-therapy to name all the reasons why I thought I should give up on motherhood and run away before I did permanent damage,” (p. 24) she gives us all permission to acknowledge our own fears and doubts. As I read the story, I pulled up a mental image I prefer to keep very deeply buried of one night when my son was about two and I went in to check on him, only to discover he had somehow rolled off the bed and gotten wedged between the guardrail and the mattress, his legs dangling down. No damage done, fortunately, except for my permanent sense of guilt that if something had in fact happened, it would have all been my fault for failing to protect this wonderful, loving, trusting little person.

But the essay doesn’t end there. Ms. Sher goes on to tell about a time when she and Sonya were painting together, and Sonya asked her to do a rainbow, which admittedly turned out not to be her all-time greatest work of art. Ms. Sher asked her daughter what she thought, and Sonya retreated to consult with her doll Bippy. After some back and forth, she said, “I know. I know. But that’s not a nice thing to say. I think Mom’s doing a great job.” (p.25) Ms. Sher responded by wanting “to laugh and cry and hold my beautiful daughter so tight with love. / Instead, I bit my lip and said, ‘Yeah, Bippy. Sorry. But at least I’m learning.'” (p.25)

All of us being different, each of us may relate in different ways – if at all – to any given one of the essays in this book. But in the end, that’s only part of the point. Because, all of us being different, all of us are different as parents. To disempower the Good Mother myth, we need to work to actively affirm the individual truths of motherhood, all of them. As Ms. Norman Nathman writes in her introduction, “Read these stories, find yourself within these pages, and join us as we redefine the myth of motherhood to fit reality.” (p. xvii) And Ms. Turlington Burns points out that “At this point in time, the possibility and importance of connecting, empowering, and accepting each other as women and mothers at every point along the mothering spectrum is crucial.” (p. x)

“I’ll probably make a few stops on my way home, maybe head up to Cambridge or go to Northampton,” I told my son in answer to his question about where I was going, and he nodded. A hug and a couple of “Love you!”s later, I was back out in in the snow and rain, the Kian-sized hole now where my heart should have been. “Having children means our hearts walk around outside our bodies,” said President Obama in response to the Sandy Hook tragedy, as Jessica Valenti pointed out in her essay based on that quote. (p. 68)

If an especially acute awareness of the hole in my heart was to be my fate on this day, in reading and learning through the afternoon about the lives of the good (enough) mothers in the book, at least I knew I was not alone.

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Taking the First Step

An address to the school delivered on Martin Luther King Day.

“When you call something the ‘New Civil Rights Movement,’ you’re implying that the ‘old’ Civil Rights Movement is over. It isn’t.”Womanist Gamer Girl

Nearly 60 years ago, on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States issued their historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education ending legal segregation in American schools. Chief Justice Earl Warren had worked for weeks to build a consensus, enabling the decision to be unanimous despite personal and legal reservations several of the justices held in the case. One of the key holdings was that, “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. . .” (http://www.uscourts.gov/)

Nearly 60 years later, exactly a week ago today, U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall settled the longest-running case relative to Brown, approving a settlement between the Little Rock district and the state and surrounding districts. The original case dates back to 1956, when a class action suit was filed seeking the desegregation of the Little Rock school system. While in one sense the settlement ends an era that should never have stretched out so long, there is little to celebrate about it.

For one thing, according to history professor John Kirk, “in a city that is roughly 47 percent white and 42 percent black, the school population is two-thirds African-American.” (Kirk, quoted by Washington) As Kirk further noted, white students are choosing private or charter schools. In addition, and following patterns that were seen in districts throughout the country as schools were progressively desegregated, there was a significant amount of white flight to the suburbs. In this way, as was noted by attorney John Walker, who represented black students in the case, “the legal system of segregation has been replaced by a defacto system.” Pulaski County Superintendent Jerry Guess said, “I have had a lot of people comment about their kids going to schools where black students are and not wanting to. And I believe that’s still, unfortunately, a truth about human nature.” (Guess, quoted in Elliott)

“A truth about human nature.” Seriously? I’m not going to deny that there are prejudiced people in the world, and of course we all notice difference. But specific attitudes toward difference are not inevitable. People are not born prejudiced; this must be learned.

And if it can be learned, then it can also be unlearned. Unlearning is a long, slow process. Research suggests that it takes nine times as long to relearn something correctly as it does to learn it correctly in the first place. But when the goal is universal respect for all people regardless of the colour of their skin, we have a moral obligation to work for that goal, to keep the faith no matter the odds. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” and “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

So, if you do encounter prejudice, take that step and confront it. Start the unlearning process. Confront prejudice with love and respect, for you will never teach love and respect if you don’t model it. But confront it nonetheless. Have faith that you are doing the right thing. Have faith the next steps will become clear when the time is right.

And have faith that you are not alone. Year after year, time and time again, my students express sadness and confusion that racism ever existed and still exists, and time and time again, they say they want to do something about it. So, when I get discouraged in my own fight, I often think of you all. Because you inspire me to stay on the staircase, even when the next step isn’t visible. Yet.

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Reflecting our Compassion

May my tweets reflect my compassion & if/when they don’t may I have enough self-awareness to reign myself back in. #Amen
Sister Outsider

These days, it seems that making a sincere, genuine, heartfelt apology is becoming something of a lost art. Far too often, the transgressor manages to include the phrase “I’m sorry” without ever accepting any personal responsibility, often including the word “if” to increase the fudge factor. Yet, an apology that reads essentially “I’m sincerely sorry if anyone was offended by my actions despite my obviously good intentions” just doesn’t cut it, especially when followed by a long explanation of those good intentions and little to no consideration whatsoever for the genuine hurt and/or anger experienced by other people as a direct consequence of those specific actions.

That was essentially the initial approach taken by singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco when a firestorm of controversy erupted when it was learned that she was hosting a songwriting retreat at Nottoway Plantation Resort in Louisiana. Though it has now been taken down, at the time, the resort’s website included this stunningly tone-deaf phrase, “”Ever the astute businessman, Randolph [Nottoway] knew that in order to maintain a willing workforce, it was necessary to provide not only for his slaves’ basic needs for housing, food and medicine, but to also offer additional compensation and rewards when their work was especially productive.” (Jezebel) That Ms. DiFranco is a champion of social justice and a feminist icon with a long history of supporting LGBT rights made the gaffe even more painful for many people.

Ms. DiFranco’s first apology (foreshadowing alert!) was not particularly helpful for, despite announcing the cancellation of the retreat, her decision to then launch into a long essay on racism, slavery, and privilege that managed to reach new heights of whitesplaining such as “i know that the pain of slavery is real and runs very deep and wide. however, in this incident i think is very unfortunate what many have chosen to do with that pain.” only added fuel to the fire.

Fortunately, she showed a genuine willingness to really listen, and issued a second, more humble and sincere apology:

everyone,
it has taken me a few days but i have been thinking and feeling very intensely and i would like to say i am sincerely sorry. it is obvious to me now that you were right; all those who said we can’t in good conscience go to that place and support it or look past for one moment what it deeply represents. i needed a wake up call and you gave it to me. it was a great oversight on my part to not request a change of venue immediately from the promoter. you tried to tell me about that oversight and i wasn’t available to you. i’m sorry for that too. know that i am digging deeper.
-ani

In a similar vein, Grant Wiggins, a true giant among educators, found himself in hot water over a blog entry he wrote advocating a greater mixing of teachers and students in schools, including sharing cafeterias and bathrooms, toward the end of promoting a greater sense of understanding and unity and developing a genuine sense of student voice – by comparing current practices to apartheid. In this case, he reacted within 24 hours by issuing an honest, sincere, and heartfelt apology, where he stated in part “I intended no disrespect in any way to freedom fighters and to those who overthrew apartheid. No trivialization was intended at all. I have always been against all apartheid, and personally, as a child, spoke up about separate water fountains in Washington DC. / However, it is clear from some of the angry comments directed my way that I was insensitive or at least unthinking about using such a term to make a point. I am sorry for the anger and upset I have caused to anyone offended. My goal, indeed, was to generate thought and discussion – as always – and so for those who were properly angered I clearly failed on two counts. I apologize for my thoughtless choice of language.” (Wiggins) Then, at the request of at least one reader, he rewrote the original blog. Notice that he took responsibility for his actions, affirmed the strong principles in which he believes, acknowledged without judging the reactions he provoked, and apologized.

When making such an apology, of course, no one has the right to expect to be forgiven, though one may certainly ask and hope for forgiveness. Melissa Harris-Perry gets this, as when her show included a segment joking about Mitt Romney’s grandson Kieran and she later realized how inappropriate this was, she wrote in a series of tweets under the hashtag #MHPapology: “I am sorry. Without reservation or qualification. I apologize to the Romney family. I work by guiding principle that those who offend to not have the right to tell those they hurt that they r wrong for hurting. As black child born into large white Mormon family I feel familiarity w/Romney family pic & never meant to suggest otherwise. I apologize to all families built on loving transracial adoptions who feel I degraded their lives or choices.” (Harris-Perry, quoted in Adams). She also made an on-air apology. Mitt Romney, when asked to comment on the incident by Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday,” responded with great class, “Look, I’ve made plenty of mistakes myself. They’ve apologized for this. You know, I think we can go on from there. (…) I think it’s a heartfelt apology. I think for that reason, we hold no ill will whatsoever.” (Romney, quoted in Darcy)

Of course, best of all is not to get yourself in that kind of situation in the first place, keeping compassion and respect always foremost in your mind. But if – when – you slip up, second best is to listen carefully no matter how painful, acknowledge what has happened, keep listening, take responsibility, and do some more listening.

Our school’s mission challenges each student, and thus each member of our community, to discover our own best selves. Sometimes, that road is pure pleasure. Sometimes, it is deeply painful. But if we truly desire authenticity, we need to follow that road wherever it takes us.

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Gathering Research

When the appointment of Dr. John Chubb to the presidency of the National Association of Independent Schools was first announced, there was a certain level of concern expressed by a number of people over his views on education. To his very great credit, Dr. Chubb responded quickly and graciously, even talking extensively over the phone with Kim Sivick, now the Director of Professional and Organizational Development for the Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools, and with me as well. Kim and I both blogged about our respective conversations, she here and I here. Among other encouraging points Dr. Chubb then made was the desire to determine and facilitate policy directions desired by the membership.

On Jan. 6-7, 2014, NAIS held a “Prominent Research Gathering” to “identify market trends affecting independent schools, new business models that will drive growth, and methodologies to measure and articulate the benefits of an independent school education.” (NAIS website) Of the 19 people invited, three are with the Hoover Institution at Stanford and another two from Stanford itself, four are with or have published with the Brookings Institution, and one more has ties with Achieve; all of these individuals and/or these groups are associated with corporate reform policies. Of the remaining nine people who attended, only four currently work in schools – in each case, a coed day school. Two of them are Heads of School, one an Assistant Head of School for Business and Finance (who is at the same school as one of the Heads), and one a Director of Enrollment Management. At least 18 of the members of this group are white, and only five are women. Honestly, I would have hoped for much more diversity – in terms of core beliefs, school backgrounds, and demographic profile. I also tend to favour including active practitioners in the K-12 classroom in such groups.

My cousin Bruce Baker, a professor at Rutgers who is a nationally respected expert in school finance and statistical analysis, blogged on Monday about his own concerns based on views stated in the past and conclusions drawn by many members of this group. In keeping with his positive past record, Dr. Chubb responded with a courteous reply stating “I think you will find that the meeting has a very different aim than you suggest.” and “Our intent was to bring together people whose diverse opinions and expertise could challenge NAIS as we determine which research topics will help independent schools thrive long into the future.” Dr. Baker responded in kind, reaffirming politely “that the group you’ve convened is anything but diverse in terms of its views on effective and efficient resource allocation in education” – a view which, as I’ve suggested above, I happen to share.

With the meeting now over and the announcement of what ideas they discussed and what research directions they are proposing still (and soon) to emerge, I find it irresistible to imagine what the group might have discussed – or more precisely, what I hope they discussed.

Regarding market trends, I hope and trust they considered the effect of the dramatic increase in income inequality in this country: over the last 40 years, the top 1% of the country have nearly doubled their share of all wealth, from approximately 11.3% to nearly 22.5% while the bottom 90% have seen their share of wealth fall from approximately 67.5% to below 50% for the first time in history. (Pew Research) Meanwhile, “From June 2009 to June 2012, inflation-adjusted median income fell 4.8%.” (Sentier Research, reported in the Washington Post) If we are to, through our schools, truly promote diversity, social justice and equality in our society, we will need to find ways to deal positively with the negative effects of the shifting economy. Fortunately, we may do so from a position of strength, as national levels of enrollment in non-sectarian independent schools have remained relatively constant through the changing economy (note Figure 2 in Baker).

Regarding business and education models, I would imagine and hope that the group acknowledged that not all business models adapt well to education, and in particular that some of the competition-based models which schools are often urged (in the case of public schools, occasionally forced) to adopt did not work that well in the business world to begin with; see on this point yet another of Dr. Baker’s blogs. More positively, a research-based progressive model for middle schools, This We Believe by the Association for Middle Level Education, has been shown to work effectively, and is reflected at the high school level in the principles of Breaking Ranks II by the National Association for Secondary School Principals.

Regarding measures of student outcomes, the key questions here are not just how to assess students but also toward what end. My understanding is that research increasingly suggests that formative assessment is far more instrumental in learning than summative assessment, and that while standards-based assessment (such as the system used in our middle school) can be more effective than traditional grades, a system of purely narrative assessment might well be the strongest of all. As to research on the effectiveness of independent schools, one shining example would be the 2009 Sax study done at UCLA which objectively proved the effectiveness of independent girls schools in a number of important areas.

As to purpose of student assessment beyond student learning, one of the members of this group has written on the use of test scores to “deselect” teachers, firing our way to the top. Yet research shows the unreliability of Value-Added Modeling in identifying the effectiveness of a given teacher, as shown for example by John Ewing in this piece from the Washington Post. Hopefully, this group has discarded consideration of this and other empirically indefensible practices often proposed for public schools, and chosen other directions for the future.

Dr. Chubb notes that “NAIS will be posting more details of the research meeting later this week.” and, like my cousin – and no doubt a good many members of NAIS – I am looking forward to learning the ideas and directions for further research that emerge from this meeting. A year ago, in his phone call with Kim Sivick, Dr. Chubb stated, “The direction that NAIS takes in the years to come will be the direction that the schools wish to take, collectively and individually. That is as it should be. It is also the only way that I know to work effectively as a leader.” As was true a year ago, and as is likely to be true for the rest of my life, I hope and trust that NAIS schools will collectively choose a direction that promotes social justice and supports all students in the country, including those in public schools, and indeed will support students through the entire world. I am quite sure those ideals are individually true of my own school, and I am quite sure we are not alone.

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