03 March 2014

Is privatizing public education the solution to the problems public schools face?

Some believe the backbone of the US was founded on public education, but that democratic ideal is now being threatened. As the US public educational system struggles to stay relevant, corporations like Pearson, and billionaires such as Bill Gates push for the privatization of public schools.

But are they right? Is privatizing public education the solution to the problems public schools face? What are the problems? Many educators, including myself, recognize that public schools are worth saving, and the problems are not what they first seem to be.

In the simplest terms, public or state education is free, and private education, think parochial schools, are not. Most public schools are funded by property taxes. Yet, as we know, some neighborhoods, states and counties are wealthier than others - creating an inequality of funds and monies.

Another interesting problem free education faces is no one wants to pay more property taxes. Yet costs of materials, like the cost of living, have risen, and government programs that were implemented in the past to help level student inequality have been eliminated.

There has also been a sharp increase of charter schools in America as part of the “solution” to “failing” public schools. Unfortunately, these independent schools have also diverted much of the funds that would have gone into public schools.

As a result of less funding, public classrooms, class size, curriculum, students and teachers have been, and continue to be, deeply affected. In fact, public schools are closing. Meanwhile, wealthy and privileged children are enjoying a higher quality education that does not include reduced spending on building maintenance, equipment, or program cuts like music, art and geography that public school peers are experiencing.

School vouchers were introduced as a remedy to this public school problem, and it’s a highly controversial system that essentially allows parents to choose any school, public or private with government monies.

The biggest proponents of school vouchers believe in the “free market of education” and trust competition between schools will force failing schools to work harder or die out completely, and reward good schools. Pro-voucher advocates, in addition, feel private schools will become more diverse places, and strengthen educational quality. In essence, vouchers are all about promoting school choice. 

But a problem to consider is private schools can reject students.  By their distinctiveness, they are selective. What made public school a great equalizer was, children with disabilities, learning challenges, or those from poor economic conditions were still able to go to a school. But even with a voucher, there can still be a financial deficit for lower income families to overcome. Vouchers are not free tickets; they are coupons for a specific amount of money to be applied to their school of choice.

Another concern is what competition will foster for our children and our schools. What privatization of public education truly creates is a “survival of the fittest” climate, and a “race to the top” as Obama calls it. Consequently, free and public education for all becomes education for the privilege, few and select who can play the game and who can compete. As Diane Ravitch, an education historian, astutely points out, there will be winners and losers in the competitive market of education.

For me, this analogy comes to mind. Let’s pretend we’ve really trashed and ruined a city, so we decide to move to somewhere else. Vouchers and privatization are in theory, moving to another city, and leaving the mess behind. Instead of figuring out a way to save public education, we're hoping a corporate model will be our savior. Unfortunately though, corporations can be corrupt and with no one to answer to.

In the world of learning, I don’t want winners and losers, I want the guarantee that every child can go to school and receive a quality education. Vouchers and privatization feel like a good answer, but there are too many families and children who will pay the consequences for our inability to keep education free.

References and further Reading:







21 January 2014

To Compliment or Criticize Students?

Did you know that teachers are inadequately trained to praise their students? Yes, in this Atlantic article, schools are failing to teach teachers how to classroom manage and praise students.

I was lucky. I had an excellent mentor who watched me and told me to “soften up,” as I was unbelievably stressed out during my first few months as a Waldorf teacher. In fact, I received so much criticism that I was crumbling before my very eyes. Although the collapsing did continue, I learned to give praise and to be more “motherly.”  This is something that helped me immensely in connecting with my first graders, and still is how I teach to this day.

But what I found interesting is schools themselves are not trained to give praise to teachers, so why would they teach teachers to do something they don’t even do? That is to say, I don’t think the current US teacher-evaluation system that is being pushed into place has anything to do with praise. Instead, I’m fairly certain it has to do with accountability and teachers’ abilities to get their students to pass standardized tests.

Back when I taught in the US, I thought it was biting that we told the kids they had to “play nice,” or “don’t say bad things about someone” when the adults were having a gossip bashing fest behind closed car doors and cell phone calls. But irony and contractions fill our educational beliefs and systems (and so many other disciplines if truth be told).

Now consider the article, Tough Teachers Get Good Results. But I thought we were supposed to give our students more praise? Which is it? Are we playing softball or hardball with our students? I suppose it depends on who you talk to. Personally, I was never the kind of student who responded to “tough talk,” or being called an “idiot” as the article mentions. I would have cried, become bitter, and shut down, as I did when I was yelled at for my handwriting not being legible enough.

The author’s argument for “tough teachers” might be better served in an after school sports program or ROTC. I participated in high school theatre and had a teacher who arguably was considered “tough as rusty nails,” and I definitely feel like we all performed better because of her. But at the end of the school day, I don’t believe in a “one size fits all” philosophy in education.

Instead, I believe in common sense. I believe teachers should know their students. A perceptive teacher will know when to push, when to pull back, and who needs a gentle pat. A good teacher will know her students, and I don’t think creating a fearful and stressful atmosphere is helpful in the long run.

In fact, I think there are a lot of scarred students and adults out there who think their “tough talk” teachers were just “assholes” and jerks. I think a lot of people have been turned off by education, book learnin’ and schools because of a teacher who felt they needed to be hard to get proper results.

This idea reminds me of the old schoolmarm who screamed and threatened her students to get them to do their work the way she wanted it to be done- or the classic Catholic school model of strict nuns in starchier habits keeping students in line with their God-fearing ways and hellfire punishment. You might think I’m being extreme, but then again, there are countless stories like these that have given teachers a very bad name.

Look, I know this is the kind of story (the tough teachers article) is the kind Hollywood movies are made of, a tough music teacher who made everyone work harder and how they became amazing, but to make the leaping jump to now we know that “tough love teaching works” seems poorly conceived – especially in light of the high stakes testing that is robbing the educational system of any integrity and well, education.

And for every study and experiment that can be made FOR tough teaching, there are equal amounts of studies and research AGAINST this kind of teaching. Malcolm Gladwell commonly cites examples in his books of schools that work, and I don’t remember once reading about how stress and fear created something other than stress and fear.

Seth Godin has written a manifesto called Stop Stealing Dreams: What is school for? and I know you will be less likely to read it, (hell, I’m still in the middle of it) so I’ve included a zinger of a TEDx talk he did on his book.

And for the record, if I haven't made myself clear enough, I'm siding with the revolution, and the ones who want to change education for the better, not go back and make it “tougher,” “meaner” and “grittier” to “show how much we care.”

05 January 2014

Why you may or may not like Waldorf education

There is some underlying spiritual heebee geebee going on. Part of the controversy of Waldorf education stems from Rudolf Steiner’s spiritual beliefs, in other words, anthroposophy. As a former student of anthroposophy I can tell you this – it’s damn confusing.

So if you ask someone in the Waldorf world to explain this spiritual reality, you are going to be looking back at a person who is struggling to come up with the words to explain said reality. Read Steiner’s words for yourself, if you really want to try.

As far as I can tell, it’s harmless. Okay, what are the components of a religion? There is an idea of how the world came into being, the story of humanity, and where we are going and where we have been. There are rules or beliefs, and ideals on how we should live - and this background story, these ideas and stories, this “spiritual science” effects Waldorf education.

Waldorf teachers are not trying to indoctrinate your child into some cult. At least, that is not what I did. I just bought into a clever and creative educational model that I still find fascinating to this day.

I can’t speak for other teachers, but let’s use the analogy of theatre. Anthroposophy is the stage. The teacher is the director and the children are the actors. The play is the curriculum, and the props and costumes are the teaching materials. I’m going to argue that you won’t see the stage after a while; you’ll be too busy watching the performance.

But if the stage bothers you, chances are, you won’t enjoy the play.

There is evidence that Rudolf Steiner was possibly a racist. Look, this argument will probably go on until the end of time, or until we can bring back Steiner from the dead and ask him some questions. We only have his words to go on, which if the Bible is any indication, simply means words can be interpreted nilly willy. Steiner advocates, I feel, just need to admit, they don’t know. He could have been racist, and you have to be okay with that.

On the positive side, I rather liked that Waldorf education does not have any standardized, formal, bullshit testing. As a horrendous test taker myself, I have always questioned a test’s ability to reflect what I’ve learned or my intelligence.

But many schools, if not the gross majority, believe in testing. Although a cautionary tale regarding our culture’s zealous love affair with tests can be found here.

What Waldorf teachers do instead of testing is give each student a written evaluation. These provide more meat than the barebones ABC grading system which doesn’t really tell you about how your child is behaving, excelling at or enjoying in the classroom. In other words, you gain a better sense of how other people see your child and how your child is in a school setting.

I also very much enjoyed the artistic aspect of Waldorf education, particularly the story telling or story focused curriculum. I was intuitively drawn to the Greek myths (when I was a child, I can’t believe I stole a library book on this), and later Norse mythologies (my favorite tarot cards!). But I consider myself a natural born writer, with a constant love for all things creative. So this kind of work, movement and play was truly nourishing.

But I think it’s important to keep in mind what you like might be different than what your child likes. After all, it seems our children are here to challenge us and teach us in ways we cannot imagine. Trust your intuition in these and all things. You may or may not be right, but that's life. I wish I would have trusted my gut more often, but I was swayed by what I thought was the right thing to do.

Lastly, check out TIME magazine’s 7 Tips for Choosing the Best School for your Child  and remember Waldorf schools around the world vary a lot. I hope this helps, and good luck!

15 December 2013

Why your child might not like Waldorf education

As a former Waldorf teacher (and yes I was trained too), who has had a lot of distance and time from being in the Waldorf classroom, I can see why some children do not like Waldorf education.

I should state that Waldorf schools vary wildly. Some of them are well-established and other schools are mere fledglings working their way through the curriculum. Some Waldorf schools are great at executing Steiner’s beliefs, and others are stripped down versions of purer Waldorf pedagogy.

That being said, I feel the strength of Waldorf starts in early childhood or kindergarten. That is to say, your child might enjoy the Waldorf kindergarten program, but not necessarily the elementary school program. 


For some reason, having an airy fairy curriculum where the students are NOT behind desks, playing make-believe, enjoying cooking or crafts seems much more kindergarten than elementary grade school.  Therefore, Waldorf kindergarten seems to fit most parents’ ideal of what their children need.

However, once we move into the grade school world, your child may or may not take to this kind of learning.

What do you mean?

Well, if your child doesn’t enjoy drawing, creating, knitting, singing, dancing, and basically artistic tasks, then you might have a problem child in a Waldorf classroom.

I remember watching a 5th grade boy stand quietly while the rest of his classmates sang a song. I wasn’t his teacher. I was there to observe, but when I asked him why he didn’t sing the songs, he said, “I don’t like to sing.” Some teachers might have forced him. His teacher did not. This is, after all, a BIG part of Waldorf. There is A LOT of singing.

Now, you might argue, kids have to do things they don’t like. Absolutely.  I agree. But a different child might act out. He just happened to be the kind of kid who tolerated it.

When I had my own class, I had a 1st grade student who – how can I put this – went ape shit ballistic when his work wasn’t just right. You see, the students create their own books by copying what the teacher writes on the chalkboard. Most of the work by the children is quite lovely. But when this child wasn’t satisfied, he threw is book across the room, tried to rip up his work, cried, screamed, and threw his book in the trash.

I tried everything, but his parents, nor I, could never figure out why he acted this way. I’m going to assume now, he was not happy in a Waldorf environment, because as far as I could tell, after he was put in public school, he was fine.

Another unique aspect of Waldorf education is the same teacher ideally stays with the same class from 1st to 8th grade. What’s funny to me is how adults react upon hearing that. What if the child doesn’t like the teacher? is always asked. Looking back, this fear rarely if ever had to do with the child, instead, this fear more likely had to do with the parent.

So if you don’t like your child’s teacher, don’t expect your child to like him either. I think the younger the child is, the more likely they will rely upon your judgment whether you voice it or not. Children sense these things, and maybe even hear when you are talking things over with your spouse or friend.

Your child might also be going through something that happens in any school – bullying, teasing, and feeling unaccepted or not liked. Sometimes, these things have nothing to do with Waldorf, but more with how the school and administration handles these societal ills and discipline problems. 

One of the blind spots of Waldorf education is everyone’s inability to recognize that just because the curriculum is art-based and looks sweet and gentle, that it will not have problems.Waldorf is not perfect despite beautiful appearances. If you are thinking of Waldorf education for your child, or currently enjoying a school, remember this, because this is reality.

So if you are the kind of parent who does all this research before putting your child in a school, imagine your child in a Waldorf setting. Waldorf is different. Will your child be okay with different? Waldorf is artistic, soft, dance/movement oriented as well. Will your child enjoy this?

And lastly what has been your experience?