First Person

Voices: On Election Day, pondering education's purpose

Peter Huidekoper, Jr., veteran educator turned education consultant, argues schools need to prepare students for life – not just jobs. 

Lately we have been told again and again that our educators are not preparing American youth to be efficient workers. Workers. That language is so common among us now that an extraterrestrial might think we had actually lost the Cold War – Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books

Of course it matters who wins tonight, but no matter who our next president is, I intend to ask him and other leaders one question over the next four years. It is no small matter – just the purpose of education.

Each candidate was granted a page in a recent Time, pertaining to the cover story, “Reinventing College.” Like most politicians today, and I fear too many others setting the agenda for our country, both Obama and Romney draw a direct line from education to the economy.

OBAMA: “In the 21st century economy, higher education cannot be a luxury; it is an economic necessity every family should be able to afford….We can give 2 million workers the chance to attend their local community college and arm themselves with the skills that will lead directly to a job.”

ROMNEY: “Our economy is demanding more advanced skills and more varied skills every day. Our higher education system must be responsive to these demands if it is to offer students an attractive return on their investment, prepare them for successful careers, and help America compete in the global marketplace.”

The election has focused on “jobs jobs jobs,” and candidates have outdone themselves to tie everything else (including foreign policy) back to this concern.  But what Obama and Romney articulate is becoming the conventional wisdom: that the economy and our ability to compete in the global marketplace ought to be the goal of schools and colleges.

I believe this is foolish and dangerous.

“Tomorrow’s workers are in school today”

This quote by Marlene Seltzer is telling. It is an especially relevant topic this week as Denver will benefit Friday from presentations and discussions led by Jobs for the Future President Marlene Seltzer and Program Director Lili Allen (Hot Lunch, Donnell-Kay Foundation). The good work JFF is doing across the country, especially for at-risk youth and entry-level workers, might encourage similar efforts here in Colorado. I applaud two of JFF’s key goals: to see high school students graduate college ready and to focus on college success for students.

But I have questions for Seltzer. She often speaks “on systemic reforms in secondary and postsecondary education and the ability of the labor market to serve low-income workers, employers, and local and state economies.” I am curious to know where she finds the right balance between these two worlds. How does JFF distinguish between education and training?

An old teacher like me recalls the vocational education programs of the 1970’s and how they tended to limit – rather than expand – the possibilities for too many high school students. We read that JFF’s new Pathways to Prosperity Project in six states aims to ensure “that many more young people complete high school (and) attain a postsecondary credential with currency in the labor market.” Can we be sure that the Prosperity Project is not just old wine in new bottles?

But JFF is surely doing much good, so it is the least of my worries. Bigger forces are altering the balance between education and the economy, so that the classroom becomes subservient to the marketplace.

Consider the quote, “Education is the best economic development tool we have in our toolbox,” by Colorado House Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino.

Ferrandino was a co-sponsor of the Skills for Jobs Act (HB 12-1061) signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper last April. It directed “the Department of Labor – which collects data on job openings – to share that information with colleges, vocational schools and workforce training programs. Education News Colorado reported that House Democrats “touted it as part of their economic development package.”

The Bell Policy Center’s Frank Waterous testified for the bill, applauding how responsive it was “because it directly addresses industry’s need to fill positions in occupations and specializations critical to business growth and success. It is also responsive to the post-secondary education and workforce development communities’ desire to provide high-quality training that meets industry requirements.”

A Denver Post article found Metro State President Stephen Jordan to be a supporter, saying “the bill could prompt schools like his to tweak existing programs to better match the job market  – or to develop new programs entirely …” Jordan said he envisions adding minors or certificates that prepare students for the niches in their areas of interest that most need workers.

I would never argue that the workplace should have nothing to do with K-12 education. At the same time, leaders in government and business must know that when they speak to educators of our second-, fifth-, or eighth-graders as future workers who must learn certain skills to join the middle class – we feel they’re asking us to redefine the very purpose of education and of why we teach.

(And oh, by the way, does anyone recall the standards movement?)

Training kids for jobs here in Colorado

Over a year ago, Gov. Hickenlooper addressed the first gathering of the Education Leadership Council.

“In education there’s not a lot of mystery about what we need to do. We are not training kids for the jobs that are most likely going to be there for them… How do we begin to address that?”

My answer: do all we can to remember that a good education is not about training kids for those jobs. Two different matters. I doubt that, when Hickenlooper was himself a student, his teachers thought they were training him to be geologist-brewmaster-restaurant owner-philanthropist-mayor-governor! His example reminds us – we cannot predict what jobs will be there, or the jobs that we create for ourselves. All the more reason not to train for jobs, but to educate for life.

This is not the space to make the counterargument for the liberal arts. I simply offer a concise statement from St. John’s College, where I earned my master’s degree. The Great Books Program – by many standards, the most impractical degree imaginable. Not to me.

The best preparation for the workforce of tomorrow, for the jobs that have yet to be created, is a liberal education – the kind of education most especially found at the small residential liberal arts colleges across the country…. Graduates of the nation’s many fine liberal arts institutions are prepared not only for a diverse range of careers but for all of life’s challenges and opportunities… This education provides a fitting foundation for all pursuits in life. It is of life-long value.

In less highfalutin language, as we celebrate Election Day – civics education anyone?

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on, where this post first appeared.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.